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France need to make leaps

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Flat France need something special to upset England

On paper, England versus France in Yokohama on Saturday, a Rugby World Cup ‘Le Crunch’, looks to be an increasingly one-sided contest, pending the approaches that both head coaches opt to take to selection. In a RWC pool that has already decided its quarter-finalists, this is a winner-takes-all encounter for seeding, momentum and bragging rights.

After shining in their opening 40 minutes against Argentina, France have looked flat and turgid in their last 200 minutes of rugby. From the second half against the Pumas to their more recent encounters with the USA and Tonga, Les Bleus have fallen far short of the world beaters tag that they so frequently seem to shoulder at Rugby World Cups.

England have not set the tournament alight yet, either, although they have dispatched the same three opponents that France have with far more ease and composure. They were certainly helped by Tomas Lavanini’s red card in the first half on Saturday, although the USA and Tonga, who frustrated and troubled France, were dispatched without England ever needing to get beyond third gear.

The problem that the Lavanini red card has given England, who played 62 minutes of their game with Argentina against just 14 men, is that they are still largely untested heading towards the knockout rounds. Although Argentina’s track record against England in recent years is littered with losses, they have often pushed England hard and Eddie Jones and his staff would have probably preferred for his side to have been put under a bit more pressure than they were in Tokyo, despite securing qualification with a game to spare.

On form, that test doesn’t look like it will come this weekend against France. Admittedly, France have also qualified for the quarter-finals and are undefeated in their three games, but they’ve done so in unconvincing fashion. With both teams in the knockout rounds already, they are playing to fine-tune, avoid injuries and jockey for position, with Wales or Australia likely awaiting them.

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Watch: Jones, Farrell and Mitchell face the media after their 39-10 win against Argentina

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Those factors could influence selection with reports already surfacing that Jones could heavily rotate, although with England and France coming into the game off the back of seven and six-day turnarounds respectively and then facing a full week of preparation for the quarter-finals, they will have the opportunity to pick as strong teams as possible if they wish. With Wales also looking like group winners in Pool D, trying to top Pool C and face Australia is a reasonable carrot to dangle in front of both teams.

If France want to spring an upset and enjoy that favourable seeding, and let’s not forget this is ‘Le Crunch’, a fixture that France very rarely fail to get themselves up for, then Jacques Brunel’s side will need to make significant leaps forward in almost all areas this week.

For France, that starts with their discipline. They coughed up an eye-watering 15 indiscretions against Argentina and 10 against the USA. That was six more than the USA conceded, despite France bossing both the possession and territory battles in that game. Working in France’s favour is the way that number is trending, however, with just six conceded against Tonga on Sunday. They will need a number like that to unseat England this weekend.

One number that is not trending positively for France, though, is their turnovers conceded. From 16 against Argentina to 18 against the USA, before rising to maddening total of 22 against Tonga, there has been little foundation for France to build any sort of continuity or attacking threat from.

The silver lining for France? England haven’t been too clinical themselves, coughing up 50 turnovers in their first three games. That’s only six less than France. The difference, though, is that not only have England been more composed in their execution in phase play when they have been able to keep hold of possession, they have also been more disciplined, conceding 22 penalties to France’s total of 31.

France’s set-piece has gone relatively smoothly in those three games, although again, it doesn’t stack up favourably when compared to England’s performances in those same match-ups. England’s lineout has prospered and shown an ability to disrupt the opposition throw, as well as taking control of the scrum contest. France’s pack will be much more strenuously tested by England than they have been by Argentina, the USA or Tonga.

It’s not all doom and gloom for France, though, and in isolation a number of players have impressed so far in the tournament. These are players that France will need to fire in Yokohama on Saturday.

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Virimi Vakatawa injected some life into the French midfield in the first half against Tonga. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Damian Penaud and Alivereti Raka have had their moments out wide, whilst Sofiane Guitoune and Virimi Vakatawa have flashed offensively in the midfield. On form, that would look like the most threatening back line that France could field alongside Maxime Médard at full-back, although there is no guarantee that Brunel will opt for that combination, with the likes of Yoan Huget and Gaël Fickou also in the mix.

Speaking of productive combinations, loose forwards Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt have dovetailed extremely well in France’s back row. The pack overall may not have delivered front-foot ball in the same fashion as England’s has over the last couple of weeks, but in those two players, Brunel has a source of gain-line success that matches up with anything that England have to offer. They are rapidly establishing themselves as France’s go-to pairing in the back row.

For all their merits, though, it is debatable whether or not France will be able to live with England at the breakdown on Saturday. Jones’ side haven’t been at their sharpest in that area, but between Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler and the Vunipola brothers, not to mention Manu Tuilagi frequently chipping in when play moves to the wider channels, England are loaded with players capable of significantly influencing the contest at the contact area.

Perhaps most worrying, however, is France’s second half lapses. They diminished remarkably after the interval against Argentina and struggled consistently against Tonga the longer that game went on. Only the game against the USA saw France finish strongly, where they scored three tries in the final 13 minutes, but that certainly flattered the European side as the USA looked out on their feet in the final quarter. As for England, they have looked the much better side in the second halves of all three of their games so far.

Of course, the battle on paper and in the form books can count for little when two teams actually take to the field. This Rugby World Cup pool is there to be won for France, despite most factors seeming to lean in England’s favour. Brunel has a functioning set-piece at his disposal, a handful of genuine game-winners and a match-up ahead of him that no French player needs to be motivated for.

After the flatness of the opening three games, France will need to rediscover some of those old French rugby clichés. They aren’t that inconsistent team who we have to speculate upon which side that’ll turn up, they’re consistently average to below average at the moment. They have a handful of Gallic flair to lean upon in the back line, though they struggle dominate up front for more than 40 minutes in order to sufficiently unleash it.

If there were a day for a resurrection in their mercurial ways and fearsome and uncompromising forwards, it could well be in Yokohama this Saturday.

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Flat France need something special to upset England