With 10 of the last 15 fixtures going the way of England, as well as France not tasting victory at Twickenham in the Guinness Six Nations since 2005, the balance of power in ‘Le Crunch’ currently resides north of the Channel, but there are few fixtures that still raise the hackles in the same way this one does.
A rivalry built on distinct cultural differences, as well as cultural similarities on and around the rugby pitch, national pride is at the core of that anticipation. Yet, form can count for little in such affairs, with a tense atmosphere and bubbling emotions more than capable of swinging the outcome on the pitch.
That said, England will go into the contest full of confidence after defeating reigning Six Nations champions Ireland in Dublin, whilst France will feel dejected, having been well on their way to upsetting Wales in Paris, before proceeding to shoot themselves in the foot multiple times in an implosion of a second half.
In Eddie Jones and Jacques Brunel, England and France have two of the most experienced international coaches in world rugby, but it is there the similarities seem to end.
Whilst Jones has 30 victories in his 37 tests with England, an impressive win rate of 81%, Brunel has only won three of his 12 games in charge of France, making for a rather paltry success rate of 25%. To be fair to the former Italy head coach, that set of results does include a three-match tour of New Zealand and a victory over England in last year’s Six Nations, but the returns since his hire at the end of 2017 have not been what the French Rugby Federation would have hoped for when they sacked Brunel’s predecessor, Guy Novès.
Brunel and his side may have seen off England in Paris last year, but it’s hard to argue against the coaching advantage falling to England here, especially with the intensity and intelligence of their defensive showing against Ireland, with the growing influence of new defence coach John Mitchell beginning to show.
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Watch: The England squad in training
With Uini Atonio out, there is even more pressure for Poirot to deliver this weekend. Up against Sinckler, the French loosehead faces a swiftly improving scrummager and an operator in the loose that is capable of helping England fire in their quest to get over the gain-line. Sinckler impacts the game both as a ball-carrier and as a player capable of shifting the point of contact with soft hands and good distribution. If Poirot can go to work at the scrum and begin to tire the tighthead, he will help France negate Sinckler’s proficient ability in the loose, but the set-piece is no longer the chink in the Englishman’s armour that it used to be.
If there is one French player who has not deserved Les Bleus’ misfortune over the last few years, it’s their captain, Guirado. The Toulon hooker has been a remarkably consistent performer at a high level in a side which has struggled to replicate the standards he has driven. As for England, George has sparkled at club level with Saracens and performed admirably at international level, providing set-piece security and impressive work rate and conditioning. As well as he has gone, however, hooker is one of the few positions where France might feel they have an advantage in the player head-to-heads.
Two of the better controlling scrum-halves in international rugby, Youngs versus Parra is an intriguing contest at Twickenham on Sunday. Youngs was sublime in Dublin, out-duelling arguably the world’s best in Conor Murray, although with a fair amount of assistance from his wings Jonny May and Jack Nowell on the kick chase. If he can get that same precision from his boot again, as well as the energy and decision-making of his chasers, then England will be on their way to another victory. However, Parra has had success against the England back three before and he is more than capable of exposing any positional naivety or disconnects that England show in the back field.
A surprising selection from Brunel, moving Huget to full-back, not only because of his fumble in the Wales game, but also the availability of Toulouse’s Thomas Ramos, who has been having an excellent 2018/19 season. Ireland managed to find Daly deep and drag him up on a number of occasions, allowing their chase to occupy the space and win the contested balls, something which Parra, Huget and Camille Lopez will need to do on Sunday, if they are to have any chance of leaving Twickenham with a win. Even if they can do that, it still might not be enough, with Daly once again showing his creative worth last weekend, proving to be the perfect link man with the wings, laying on two of England’s four tries.
Despite still being just 19 years of age, Romain Ntamack dealt well with his international debut last week, showing no signs of being daunted by the additional expectations, but he has found himself replaced by Doumayrou this weekend. The La Rochelle man will now have to go up against the formidable challenge of Tuilagi. Part of England’s success in Dublin was down to how they interchanged Tuilagi and Henry Slade in the midfield, keeping Ireland’s defence guessing as to where Tuilagi would hit the line, and if they do that again this weekend, it’s going to take a lot of composure for Doumayrou to track and deal with. If France move him further out in the defensive line, preferring Mathieu Bastareaud to look after Tuilagi, his task changes to the versatile and hard-to-read Slade.
With both Daly and Huget taking up spots at full-back, not to mention France opting for two regular centres on the wings, both teams will be keen to exploit the space through the box-kicking of their nines and the territorial kicking games of Owen Farrell and Lopez. If England can start to lure Damian Penaud and Gaël Fickou up into the defensive line, they will be able to move Huget around and find plenty of grass to kick into. If May and Chris Ashton chase as well again as May and Nowell did against Ireland, England will reap the rewards.
As for France, they will need to keep the ball on a string. May and Ashton are agile and quick, capable of dropping deep if France try to pin the ball in the corners, but by drawing Daly forward to the point where he is rushing to meet the kick and cannot set himself underneath and own the space, they have a good chance of winning the ball back.
Always a critical component in a game, but this is perhaps France’s greatest hope of success on Sunday. They are a heavyweight team – despite opting to go smaller and more mobile this weekend – built on power carriers who love to break the gain-line and get their side moving forward. If they can find success in this area, which Ireland struggled to do, then they have a chance of rattling the aggressive English defence and negating their impressive line-speed.
For Jones’ side, denying France any kind of quick ball at the contact area will be key to preventing this, so it will require another industrious display from the likes of Mako Vunipola, Mark Wilson and Tom Curry. If they outwork and outsmart France at the breakdown, there’s a good chance they will win the gain-line contest for the second week in a row, with the likes of Billy Vunipoa and Tuilagi capable of getting England moving forward.
Form doesn’t mean everything in this contest, but equally, coming off two results as contrasting as those ones these teams recorded in the opening round, it seems too big of a gap for France to traverse on Sunday.
England are the better conditioned team, they have settled combinations in a number of positions and there is a balance to the side that hasn’t always been there during Jones’ tenure. The loss of Maro Itoje will hurt, but second row is one of the positions where England have genuinely top-class international depth to call upon.
France are capable of springing the upset, but based on their match against Wales, the conditioning and decision-making struggles among the squad, and the fact that England have home advantage, it’s hard to predict any outcome other than an England win.
England by 14.
Watch: England vs Ireland analysis
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