England’s biggest hurdles are in the first two rounds of the tournament as they travel to France and then Scotland, both games they lost a couple of years ago. If they can negotiate those, most would back them to beat Wales and Ireland at home and Italy in Rome.
This is the big one and, while this French side does look exciting and has been talked up this week, the opening round is the perfect time to play them as they’re still getting up and running and used to playing with one another, as well as under a new coaching team.
They are also very, very inexperienced. Fabien Galthie has come in as head honcho and been allowed to start planning already for a home World Cup in 2023. Eddie Jones only has a contract for another two years, so the present is far more important for him.
Bernard Le Roux is the only player over the age of 30 in Galthie’s 42-man squad, which contained no fewer than 19 uncapped players, and experience could play a big role at the Stade de France, especially in the pack.
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France’s starting forwards have just 85 caps between them, that’s the second most inexperienced pack named by any side in the Six Nations era. England’s eight have 305, not far off four times as many, and seven of them played in a World Cup final three months ago.
It’s a similar story in the backs as well with England having around three times as many caps as their opponents and they are rightly favourites not just for this game but for the tournament.
The World Cup final heartache should drive them on and, as well as being one of only two teams without a new head coach in this Six Nations, there has been far less upheaval in their squad than the others.
George Furbank is the one completely fresh face in England’s starting XV and he’s been a shining light for Northampton this season so deserves his shot in the absence of Anthony Watson.
He and Elliot Daly, in particular, might just get peppered with a fair few high balls so it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with that and it’ll also be interesting to see how George Ford reacts after Eddie Jones’ revelation in his book that he should’ve left him out for the World Cup final against South Africa.
I like the selection of Ollie Devoto on the bench and also Will Stuart because Dan Cole has been a fantastic servant to England over the years but there needs to be a long term replacement for him and Stuart has been in good for Bath since joining from Wasps.
Eddie’s comments during the week about the French youngsters’ ability to deal with the “brutal physicality” his side will bring have caused a stir in some quarters but I don’t have an issue with them at all. What he’s talking about is a given in international rugby nowadays.
This French backline does look like a ridiculously exciting prospect on paper but Virimi Vakatawa’s performance for Racing against Saracens a couple of weeks ago was the perfect example of its unpredictability. He was almost unplayable in the first half but anonymous in the second.
If it all clicks, England will be in for a hell of a test in defence but they will have prepared in great detail tactically for what they’re going to come up against and much of that will have been focused on keeping the ball away from France’s outside backs.
It’s another open Six Nations in prospect but not only did England reach a World Cup final a few months ago, they also produced one of the greatest performances in their history against the All Blacks a week earlier.
They are definitely favourites for the tournament. Tomorrow in Paris looks like their toughest test on paper but I think they’ll win by eight points. Beyond that, who knows, the Grand Slam could be on.
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