England must beware Magne mountain

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The Independent Online

England are in flying form and will be obvious favourites in Paris next Saturday but it will be a lot tougher than their fans expect. Indeed, I think France have a fair chance in what is bound to be a confrontational and abrasive encounter.

England are in flying form and will be obvious favourites in Paris next Saturday but it will be a lot tougher than their fans expect. Indeed, I think France have a fair chance in what is bound to be a confrontational and abrasive encounter.

After two not very convincing wins, the French will have to raise their game considerably to give England any lasting problems but they are capable of doing so.

The confidence of the English could hardly be higher, and they'll be heartened by the good performance of the Welsh pack against France last weekend, but they'll know they are up against a dangerously unpredictable foe. While it is true that the French scrum did look a bit creaky in Cardiff it may have been due more to a lack of concentration than a serious weakness. In any case, there are a few excellent players returning to strengthen their forwards; not least back-row giant Olivier Magne.

England have registered two comfortable wins and reached an awesome standard in the first half of their heavy defeat of Ireland last weekend but now they face their toughest opponent away from home and have to prove their superiority in the northern hemisphere all over again in a match that is not likely to be as open and attractive.

Jonny Wilkinson will not have as much good ball as he has been used to and England will find themselves playing from much deeper. It is going to be very competitive in the loose and France have the sort of players who can be tough in that area. The back row, in particular, will be up for a fast and rugged game. Against Wales, flanker Serge Betsen was my man of the match and new boy Imanol Harinordoquy looked good at No 7. I fancy they'll move Harinordoquy to No 8 to accommodate Magne and they also have the blond-haired Remy Martin joining the squad. In the backs, New Zealander Tony Marsh, who scored two tries against Wales, can tackle like a tank as can winger David Bory who with Nicolas Jeanjean is another returnee.

With captain Fabien Galthié, another who missed the Welsh match, coming back to use his probing skills from scrum-half the French have eager new blood in several vital positions.

Outside-half Gérald Merceron and centre Damien Traille are both excellent goal-kickers but what they also share is an ability to kick long and accurately from their hands. They will force England to play from deep. England are going to have to be tactically sound as well as technically brilliant to carry on their conquering way in what will be a fascinating contest.

What I would urge them to do is forget about the World Cup. I've heard people say that they are shaping themself with that in mind. That is a highly dangerous policy. You can't afford to think that far ahead. They must focus on the job in hand. If they concentrate fully, game by game, on the Six Nations, the autumn internationals and then next year's Six Nations, the World Cup will look after itself.

Wales' home game against Italy is going to be very much a sideshow but no one should under-estimate its importance to the Welsh.

They made a huge improvement against France by simplifying everything. They lost momentum after surrendering three line-outs but they won far more rucks and mauls than their opponents. But they still lacked the cutting edge. They were slow and too deep from phase play and their handling was not good enough. Passes were not aimed in front of players, who constantly had to check to take the ball.

They have to attack quicker and with more width if they are going to ask questions of the opposition. But I was impressed with caretaker coach Steve Hansen who was forthright in his assessment and seems to have a clear idea of what he wants.

The first thing they want is others to share the ball-carrying duties with Scott Quinnell. Losing his brother Craig to a training accident last week was a blow. Players like Colin Charvis, Duncan Jones and Martyn Madden should be fast-tracked into the squad and I would settle on Gareth Thomas and Dafydd James as the centres.

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