For a number of nations including France, the story of their opening Guinness Six Nations match is one of rejuvenation. For England, it’s one of consolidation.

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Eddie Jones has named his 23 for the clash with France in Paris on Sunday and there are few surprises among the group, with many of the squad having played pivotal roles in guiding England to the World Cup final in Japan last year.

Injuries to Billy Vunipola, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell have seen a re-jigging of the back row and back three, with Courtney Lawes stepping into the back row alongside Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, and George Furbank making his international debut alongside Elliot Daly and Jonny May.

There is consistency in the front and second rows, where Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler and Maro Itoje take up their accustomed positions with Charlie Ewels, while the Leicester Tigers duo of Ben Youngs and George Ford are retained in the half-backs.

Owen Farrell lines up alongside Manu Tuilagi in the centre to complete the starting XV, with experienced faces such as George Kruis and Jonathan Joseph available from the bench.

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 The Rugby Pod preview the 2020 Guinness Six Nations

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For the time being, it seems as though Jones is more than happy to continue with the bulk of the squad that made it to that final. If anything more than tweaks are to come to the group, they are set to occur later in the tournament.

French rugby may have been in a lull in recent years, but that does not make Paris any easier of an environment to blood newcomers, particularly when they are wearing the red rose on their chests. As for France, there is a freshness to their side that has not been seen for a number of years.

Mohamed Haouas and Anthony Bouthier both make their debuts in the starting XV, while Boris Palu and Cameron Woki will do likewise if brought on from the bench. Starting lock Bernard Le Roux and bench loosehead Jefferson Poirot are the only French forwards in the 23 to have over 20 caps and the group will be testing themselves against an England pack that surpassed nearly every group that they faced last year.

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There is much more familiarity in the back line, where Toulouse pair Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack take on responsibilities in the half-backs, with Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa outside of them. Exciting attacking talents Teddy Thomas and Damian Penaud line up alongside Bouthier in the back three.

That said, a lack of experience among the replacements is also apparent, with Mathieu Jalibert and Vincent Rattez boasting just four caps between them, though Baptiste Serin is tried and tested at this level. This really is the beginning of a new era for France and Fabien Galthie has held little to nothing back in his first fixture in sole charge of the side.

If the French backline is given quick, front-foot ball, they have the ability to shred any defence they come up against. To ensure that doesn’t happen, Jones will need to make sure his charges back up his words earlier in the week about giving the young French pack a lesson in “brutal physicality.”

The French league is hardly renowned for its lack of physicality, but given the youthful theme to Les Bleus’ forwards, it’s unsurprising that it’s an area which Jones and England will look to target. By contrast to the French side, England’s starting pack only has three players with less than 30 caps – Underhill, Curry and Ewels.

In short, England will look to do to France exactly what South Africa did to them in the final a few short months ago. Where the intrigue comes for England fans is in the forms of starting full-back Furbank and bench tighthead Will Stuart, who will make his international debut if Sinckler doesn’t play the entire 80 minutes.

Stuart has prospered since leaving Wasps for Bath in the summer. Despite his new club’s indifferent form so far this campaign, he has been given the first audition to be the man to replace the veteran Dan Cole and push Sinckler for his spot in the starting XV. With his impressive work and tenacious ball-carrying, Jones has opted for a like-for-like ‘finisher’ to replace Sinckler, as opposed to the more traditional tighthead, Harry Williams.

 

As for Furbank, his debut comes on the back of an excellent 18 months or so for Northampton Saints where a role as the deputy for the injured Harry Mallinder has swiftly turned into him having locked down the jersey and catapulted himself into senior international rugby. Daly may well return to the 15 shirt against Scotland if Watson proves his fitness next week, although this is still a significant opportunity for Furbank to show that he can cut it at this level and continue to push Daly in terms of selection.

Away from those two players, however, it’s largely the England squad that went all the way to the final last year and their retention has been a reward for the performances they put in during their time in Japan.

England have the form and the experience. France have, as bizarre as it may sound in front of their passionate home crowd, nothing to lose. It’s a game where tactics and team efforts will prove decisive, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t individual and positional duels that could prove pivotal in delivering the win.

Julien Marchand vs Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Charlie Ewels

This will be only Marchand’s third game in the blue of France and though experienced and very effective for Toulouse domestically, three premier lineout threats like Itoje, Lawes and Ewels will undoubtedly test his ability. If he can develop that chemistry with his jumpers and provide a consistent platform from which France can launch their devastating backline, it will go a long way to delivering his side a much-needed victory.

On the other hand, if England can pressure Marchand early and disrupt his throws, it will spread the seeds of doubt in France’s inexperienced pack. It will certainly test the credentials of captain Charles Ollivon and senior second row Bernard Le Roux.

Virimi Vakatawa vs Manu Tuilagi

Both players pack quite the punch as ball-carriers, although it is their footwork and ability to beat their opposite number on the outside with a bust of speed that really sets them apart at this level. How they attempt to contain one another defensively could have a major influence on proceedings out in Paris on Sunday.

The quickness of the ball that both centres have to work with will be key and if they are delivered that ball in timely fashion, either could make the sort of devastating midfield breaks that will sway this game in the favour of their side.

Damian Penaud, Anthony Bouthier and Teddy Thomas vs Ben Youngs, George Ford and Owen Farrell

One of the major philosophies of England under Jones has been to kick before they are forced to kick. By putting the kicking game on their own terms, rather than those of the opposition, they are far more likely to enjoy favourable outcomes in the search for space, territory and contestable aerial duels.

If England’s forwards can deliver quick ball to England’s three major kicking options, they will make the jobs of Penaud, Bouthier and Thomas that bit more difficult. In contrast, the French back three will need to be intelligent in their decision-making as to when kick back to England, an area where the RWC finalists generally excel, and when they attempt to run the ball. England’s aggression on the kick chase can leave space in behind, especially if the French back three are able to avoid the first-up tackle.

Prediction

This is an exciting French team that have the opportunity to capture the hearts and minds of their fans in arguably the most anticipated fixture in northern hemisphere rugby, Le Crunch. It’s a team built to play at the tempo that is now required in international rugby and it’s a group littered with younger players on steep and upward trajectories.

That all said, they are coming up against an England team that has been flying high over the last twelve months. It has experience, youth and a nice balance on the pitch, not to mention a Saracens core with plenty to prove. Unless there is a significant RWC hangover that we are yet to see, England go into the game as understandable favourites.

England by ten.

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