England coach Eddie Jones summed up the dilemma facing his side ahead of Sunday’s Six Nations clash at Twickenham by insisting there was still a place for “beautiful” French rugby in the modern game even if that meant a change to their traditional flair play.
According to rugby cliché, England are solid if unspectacular while France are brilliant but unpredictable.
France did their best to live up — or down — to the stereotype by squandering a 16-0 half-time lead in a remarkable 24-19 first-round defeat by Wales in Paris last week.
England, by contrast, ran in four tries — including one as early as the second minute — in a 32-20 victory away to Ireland in Dublin that scuppered the reigning Six Nations champions’ bid for back-to-back Grand Slams.
And yet for the opening 40 minutes, France were tactically superior to Wales, out-thinking their opponents while also outplaying them with ball in hand.
But for missed goal-kicks France might even have had an even bigger lead, before self-inflicted wounds in the second half — Yoann Huget’s failure to touch down behind his own line and Sebastien Vahaamahina’s reckless intercepted cut-out pass — gifted Wales two tries.
– ‘Spring in their step’ –
Jones, asked if French unpredictability was now a myth, replied: “I think the way the game’s gone, it’s become a lot more patterned. You look at the most fluid attacking sides in the world, they still play with a certain amount of pattern now and that’s been the case with French rugby, but then they get one offload and it goes back to old-style rugby.
“Players who looked tired suddenly have a spring in their step and there’s offloads and there’s continuity and there’s players coming from depth and it’s beautiful rugby,” the Australian added.
“So it’s still there but just in a different way.
“France are a difficult team,” insisted Jones. “If you look back at the Wales game, they gifted Wales 14 points, so you take 14 points out of the Wales total and France are the clear winners.”
Jones has made just the two changes to England’s XV, recalling wing Chris Ashton and bringing in Courtney Lawes for injured second row Maro Itoje, but there are six alterations to France counterpart Jacques Brunel’s run-on team.
Powerhouse centre Mathieu Bastareaud returns to form a new centre partnership with La Rochelle’s Geoffrey Doumayrou, with Wesley Fofana sidelined by a thigh injury and teenager Romain Ntamack dropped to the bench.
South Africa-born lock Paul Willemse, who made his France debut against Wales, is also now among the replacements, with the 24-year-old Felix Lambey now set to make his first Test start.
Demba Bamba comes in at tighthead prop instead of the injured Uini Atonio, flanker Yacouba Camara replaces Wenceslas Lauret and Gael Fickou returns on the left wing of a back three revamped because of Maxime Medard’s thigh problem.
England, with centre Manu Tuilagi prominent, outmuscled Ireland and Brunel said of Bastareaud’s return: “Against the power they have in midfield which has been strengthened by Manu Tuilagi he can have an interesting impact.”
France haven’t won a Six Nations match at Twickenham since 2005 but the experienced Bastareaud, adamant he was too old to be bitter at missing out against Wales, said they could cause an upset.
“I’m 30, I’ve learnt to be above the idea of being vengeful,” he explained.
“We’re going to England without much to lose because everyone thinks we’re going to get thrashed. We have to go there and try things. It’s up to us to go there and cause problems,” he added.
England and France may be in the same pool at this year’s World Cup, but Jones said Sunday’s match was no dress rehearsal for that clash in Japan.
“It’s got no World Cup connotations. It’s a one-off game,” he said.
“It’s like boxing a bloke twice; the only time it counts is when you’re in the ring that time. We’re in the ring this time and this is the only game that counts.”