England primed for Le Crunch
The French raiding party strode into the Twickenham environs yesterday afternoon with menace in their eyes: bristling, irritated and snappy.
Coach Marc Lievremont hit back at those who had made merry with his so-called anti-English comments, delivered tongue in cheek but reported with a straight bat.
"I don't like being taken for a prat and stitched up by one story," said Lievremont. "To take things out of context is ridiculous."
France have every right to be bold and defiant. They are defending Grand Slam champions. They are unbeaten in this year's tournament, with victory in Dublin the latest notch on Gallic belts.
They have won eight championship matches in a row, England being their last conquerors here two years ago. They have impressive credentials.
The problem is that no one, not even themselves, know if they are coming back today. Unpredictable, fragile, mercurial -- which France will England be facing?
Successive French coaches have tried to banish this infuriating stereotype. Lievremont is the latest to try, and so far fail. Inconsistency is still their default mode.
England are in a good place. They are tight-knit and self-aware. They intend to prey on French frailties.
"You can effect which French side turns up by the way you play yourself," said Martin Johnson. "If you let them play they will look fantastic. If you get them under pressure it is much harder for them."
England are fast turning into a very decent side, one with solid basics and a bit of devil behind. Half-backs Ben Youngs and Toby Flood are busy and decisive, the back three of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto alert, hard-working and potent.
If England perform well then they will almost certainly beat France. That is, unless France pull out one of those performances of majesty and splendour that define their sense of self.
True, they have won only once in 13 years at Twickenham in a championship match, but their capacity for creating something from nothing had no finer moment than at today's venue in 1999 when they defeated the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final. The stadium doesn't spook them; England might.
England, though, have their own retinue of ghosts who flit hauntingly in night-time thoughts. In Paris last year, England's hopes of winning were uncoupled by France's tactics at the scrum.
England simply could not find a way to cope. Nine penalties were conceded. England scored the only try of the night yet lost to three penalties and a dropped goal, 12-10. The same France front row is in action: Thomas Domingo, William Servat and Nicolas Mas. England are well aware of what they face.
The return of Andrew Sheridan is crucial to England's plans. He has to prevent Mas from getting his way, no matter how that might be achieved. He has to be smart as well as strong. England were neither in Paris last season.
France have come tooled up for a fight. Ashton may well be the headline act. But this game will be shaped, and probably settled, up front.
Aside from fuming, Lievremont has been ploughing through a biography of Winston Churchill. "But I've left it at home as I was beginning to warm to the English," he said. France are in need of stirring oratory to fire them up. England are primed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
England -- B Foden; C Ashton, M Tindall (capt), S Hape, M Cueto; T Flood, B Youngs; A Sheridan, D Hartley, D Cole, L Deacon, T Palmer, T Wood, J Haskell, N Easter. Reps: S Thompson, A Corbisiero, S Shaw, H Fourie, D Care, J Wilkinson, M Banahan.
France -- M Medard; Y Huget, A Rougerie,Y Jauzion, V Clerc; F Trinh-Duc, D Yachvili; S Chabal, I Harinordoquy, T Dusautoir (capt); L Nallet, J Pierre; N Mas, W Servat, T Domingo. Reps: G Guirado, S Marconnet, J Thion, J Bonnaire, Morgan Parra, D Traille, C Poitrenaud.
Ref -- George Clancy (Ireland).
England v France,
Live, BBC 1, RTE 2, 5.0