England get their 2017 Six Nations campaign underway against France at Twickenham this Saturday.
England get their Six Nations title defence underway against France at ‘Rugby HQ’ this Saturday evening. The hosts have lost quite a few of their 2016 Grand Slam winning side to injury with Anthony Watson, Billy Vunipoala and Mako Vunipoala all ruled out of the tournament.
Can the injury-hit English open their title defence with a win or will the unpredictable French produce a huge shock at Twickenham?
England v France | Saturday 4 February | Twickenham Stadium | 18:50
To Win (80 Mins)
England 2/13 | Draw 25/1 | France 9/2
England (-12.5) 9/10 | France (+12.5) 9/10
If you had told even the most ardent of English rugby supporters that Eddie Jones’ first year at the helm of English rugby would culminate in an undefeated season, a Six Nations title, a Grand Slam and a whitewash of Australia, they would have responded with something along the lines of “I reckon you’ve had one too many pints mate”.
The problem for Jones now, is that he has set the standard so high after last season’s almighty achievements. We all know how fickle the English sports press are, and a sub-standard Six Nations campaign - which would be construed as anything below England retaining their title - could see some sectors of the sports press turn against Jones and his men.
As already alluded to, England have a plethora of their 2016 title winning squad sidelined for the tournament. Both the Vuniopalo brothers have been ruled out for the entirety of the tournament, along with Manu Tuilangi, Anthony Watson, and Chris Robshaw.
With so many players out injured, Eddie Jones is going to have to do a lot of mixing and matching. The first bit of experimentation we’re likely to see from Jones is Maro Itoje being played on the openside flank rather than in the second row. The side of the scrum isn’t an unknown habitat for the young lock as he played there during the end of the year Tests. He’s also played on the open side for his club Saracens.
While Jones will have to tweak his run on XV, he does have a settled 10/12 axis with George Ford and the mercurial Owen Farell set to link up. It will, however, be interesting to see who partners them at outside centre with Elliot Daily and Jonathon Joseph – who played the majority of last season at 13 for the Roses - likely to battle it out for the starting berth.
Jones is likely to take a pragmatic approach to this one despite four-try bonus points being introduced. England will look to dominate the set piece and take three points at every given opportunity. The Roses may become more expansive in the second half, particularly if they head into the final half an hour with a 10 point cushion.
Always the dark horse, never the winner. This has been the story of Le Bleu since they last won a Six Nations title back in 2010. The problem for the French during this period has not been the old inconsistency woes that have plagued French rugby since the dawn of time but rather dreadful performances from star players and an exceedingly unbalanced squad.
The appointment of Guy Noves as head coach back in May last year has helped alleviate the aforementioned problems - well at least to an extent. Despite finishing last year’s tournament in fifth-place, there were signs of improvement from the French, which were on show during their victory over the Irish.
Le Bleu have also been ravaged by injuries with talismanic centre Wesley Fofana rupturing his Achilles tendon while playing for Clermont. His place in the squad has been taken by Toulon wrecking Ball, Mathieu Bastareaud. The 120 kg centre has been in decent touch for Toulon, and his powerhouse runs could cause England’s lightweight midfield some issues.
The Toulon bruiser is likely to link up with Clermont stalwart, Remi Lamerat. Lamerat has been a model of consistency for his club this term putting in performance after performance. Another Clermont player who is likely to line up in the starting backline is Camile Lopez. The fly-half has also been in terrific touch although his place kicking has been suspect at times.
If France are to have any chance of winning this one then they are going to need their forward pack to front up to their English opponents. If they fail to get a foothold at the set piece, then this game could be done and dusted by half time.
The Stats That Matter
The English have won four out of the last seven meetings between the two sides. On top of this, the 'Poms have won their last five encounters with France at Twickenham.
The total combined points mark has breached the fifty point threshold in the last three games between the sides with an average of 6.6 tries being scored per game.
England are currently on a 14 game winning streak and if they claim the Grand Slam again this year they will draw level with the world record for most consecutive wins set by the All Blacks last year.
Verdict: England (-12.5) 9/10
The loss of Wesley Fofana is a massive blow for the French. The centre was set to play an integral role in the tournament with Guy Noves looking to build play around him. France will be less of a threat on attack without him which means they’ll put fewer points on the board. With this in mind, I fancy England to win on the cap. Get on the -12.5 at 9/10.