Thursday 22 February 2018

England v France: Reborn French hold no fear for Dylan Hartley ahead of Six Nations clash at Twickenham

Mick Cleary

Stuart Lancaster’s squad are bracing themselves for the sort of French backlash that stunned New Zealand only 16 months ago and came so close to winning Les Bleus their first ever Rugby World Cup.

England, however, are a side brimming with belief, fuelled not just by their unbeaten start to their campaign but, according to hooker Dylan Hartley, the memory of their victory in Paris last year. That team had only just come together under Lancaster but, despite being callow and untested, they set France back on their heels to win 24-22. A year later and Hartley believes that England have developed on all fronts and pose an even more potent threat.

“We’re much better than we were then, a much slicker outfit, unrecognisable,” said Hartley, recalled to the front row for the match today after regaining his place from Tom Youngs. “We weren’t a good team then but what we did have was a drive and a collective determination that they were not going to beat us. It was a dogged effort. If we can bring that same mentality, with the detail and attacking shape, all the pretty things we’ve added on in the last six months, we can definitely get a result.”

Hartley dismissed the suggestion that England would crumble at the scrummage as they did at the Stade de France three years ago when both he and tight head prop Dan Cole had to endure the ignominy of being substituted at half-time.

Two of the France front row from that night, props Nicolas Mas and the recalled Thomas Domingo, are on parade at Twickenham. “I can’t see what happened in Paris happening again, not with the team we’ve now got,” said Hartley. “It does start upfront. If you get your scrum right, it leads into other areas. The No 8 carries harder, you’re hitting rucks harder, you’re getting over the gain line.”

Hartley’s bullishness is offset by the knowledge that the French side running out at Twickenham on Saturday will be unrecognisable to the one that succumbed so meekly to Italy and Wales in the first two rounds of the competition. England expect a France of majesty and muscle to turn up in London, a squad primed for battle and hell bent on flushing away their previous miseries. Above all, England believe that France will scale the heights of which they are eminently capable, all the more so given that it is the less-than-beloved Anglo-Saxon that they face. Aux armies citoyens.

“Yes, it is the real France coming here,” said backs coach Mike Catt as England wrapped up their training at Twickenham. “They’ve got a big pack of forwards, a kicking and running game behind, it’s the full quota. We can’t give them anything loose. From deconstructed ball they are extremely dangerous. There will be things thrown at us that we haven’t experienced before. France bring that element of surprise and are capable of doing whatever they want.”

England, of course, have plans in place to stymie that, to close France down at source, to be accurate and probing with their own kicking and to be remorseless in defence. They acknowledge, however, that this is a much better French team in its selection.

England head coach Lancaster would have been on his guard no matter what XV had been selected for that is the naturally cautious mindset of all coaches. An outbreak of rationality in the mind of Philippe Saint-André has only enhanced that state of alert. An all-Toulouse back-row on the same wavelength, a halfback pairing of Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc that suggests poise and direction and a centre partnership with beauty in Wesley Fofana and beastliness in Mathieu Bastareaud. No wonder Lancaster terms it “well-balanced”.

There is a sense, too, that France’s attitude has changed. They have bridled in recent years at the impertinent suggestion that they might rely on a bit of French flair to bring them success, as if ‘flair’ were something decadent and ill-suited to the modern age of choreographed rugby, the refuge only of feckless chancers. The French wanted to be seen as disciplined and rigorous. It did not, and does not, suit them, as they seem to have recognised.

Saint-André speaks of’ “daring and unpredictability”, urging his team to embrace their heritage. To do that they will have to deliver a performance last seen in early autumn when Australia were battered at the breakdown and emasculated at the scrum. That is the France of which England are wary. That is why they themselves have beefed-up their own team, bringing in the scrummaging weight of Hartley, the tacking spikiness and line-out prowess of Courtney Lawes with the punch of Manu Tuilagi added for good measure.

England know that the domestic game in France is based on machismo principles. There is a tendency to brutal set-piece confrontation, on a power-game upfront that shapes much of what happens elsewhere.

“France have driven more than half of the line-out ball they have won in the championship,” Lancaster said. “They will target us there. We’ve got to get our heads in there and stop it. It’s about having absolute full-blooded commitment.”

England have become hard-bitten in a short period of time, rallying round the likes of Brad Barritt in defence and prepared to seek out possibilities for Chris Ashton and others in attack. Owen Farrell has to guard against France doing a Serge Betsen on him as the legendary ‘Grim Reaper’ former France flanker once did to Jonny Wilkinson, targeting him and drawing England’s fly-half into a man-to-man contest. Farrell and England have to rise above all that.

England look equipped to cope with all manner of challenges. Only a stroke of Gallic genius can prevent their Grand Slam campaign gathering momentum at Twickenham on Saturday.

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