England take on France in Paris on Sunday in a match that used to define the tournament.
The Mole thinks this has been a pretty good Six Nations. Wales v Scotland, so often the highlight through the years, served up some cracking rugby. In fact, all of Wales’ games have been entertaining, including the two away wins, and they now have back to back weekends in Cardiff to go for their Grand Slam. Ireland showed guts and passion to tough out a result in Paris. Scotland’s performances have been encouraging and injecting Visser’s try scoring and Weir’s kicking into the team would give them far more point scoring ability. Italy are lagging behind.
With the talent spread more evenly than in years gone by, France v England is not the only result that ‘matters’ in the Championship but it is still the biggest TV event and contains the only two Northern Hemisphere teams to contest a World Cup final.
English confidence is growing and, like Johnson before him, Lancashire has shown consistency in selection from the off. Owen Farrell looks set for a long career at international level and the Mole thinks that he will reprise his midfield combination with George Ford – still only 18! – and provide England with the creativity required to free up the likes of Tuilagi, Strettle, Ashton and Foden. At the moment England’s pack looks a bit fresh faced and underpowered and it is this area that will probably cost them against France. Having said that, I expect this game to be pretty close. England are solid, if not spectacular, and do not fear France. Increased familiarity will only do them good.
On the subject of familiarity, PSA’s France shows two changes at half back, one of them a definite surprise. Julien Dupuy has been called up in place of Morgan Parra while Dmitri Yachvilli has been ignored. Lionel Beauxis takes over from Francois Trinh-Duc at no 10.
Fly-half first. Trinh-Duc was dropped during the World Cup during the pool stages in favour of Morgan Parra, a converted scrum half. He came on in the final and played superbly but he has been inconsistent. The Mole was amazed that his Montpellier pack didn’t once give him the ball 5 yards from the line when they were trying to batter Leinster into submission in this season’s RDS fixture. He’s the outhalf for France, surely he should be presented with the opportunity to pull the strings! On top of that, Trinh-Duc doesn’t take the place kicks. That would lead you to think that he would be like Gregor Townsend at outhalf: flat to the gain line, sleight of hand, and quick of foot. He’s not though and has paid the price for some pretty toothless displays. His replacement, Lionel Beauxis, is still only 26 and started the 2007 QF against NZ. Beauxis is renowned as a place kicker and drop goal merchant. It’s difficult to discern if Beauxis has been promoted or Trinh-Duc dropped.
Dupuy’s selection is a surprise. Parra and Yachvilli both seem superior players with a similar style. While the Mole was a massive Pierre Mignoni fan, he doesn’t associate Julien Dupuy with the same particularly up-tempo game and can’t understand this decision. If Dupuy raises the tempo of the French game then PSA’s gambit has worked but he looks to me like Parra-lite.
France have failed to fire so far, despite earning five points from six. PSA has again selected Bonnaire alongside Harinordoquy and Dusautoir. This provides a superb set piece and a lot of football but France are missing – you’ve guessed it –a genuine openside. Now, a genuine French openside is a different beast from the Anglo-Saxon version. Think of Olivier Magne and Laurent Cabannes and you’ve got the right idea. PSA has elected for set piece solidity rather than going with the more mobile Nyanga or Ouedrago. Neither Clerc or Malzieu has had a chance to shine yet and PSA’s selection looks more conservative than attacking.
France are seven point favourites which looks too much. England look ready to continue their slow ascent under Stuart Lancaster.