Recent Leicester captains do not have a great record of leading England to victory in Paris: neither the current manager, Martin Johnson, nor Martin Corry, long-serving skippers both, ever managed it. Might Lewis Moody break the sequence? The open-side flanker, whose nickname "Crazy Horse" does not quite conjure the image of the cool-headed tactician with a splinter of ice buried deep in his cerebral cortex, has performed the role at club level on the grand total of two occasions. Whatever he brings to the job at Stade de France tonight, it will certainly be new.
Moody beat the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter and the recalled Gloucester centre Mike Tindall to the job after Steve Borthwick, very much Johnson's captain of choice, gave best to a rapidly worsening knee injury that may need a good deal of treatment. "There are three or four people we could have chosen, but Lewis is an inspirational figure," the manager explained. "We think it's a good call."
As Moody was dropped from the starting line-up only last week – Joe Worsley was preferred for the Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh – it is, to say the very least, a tale of twists and turns. Can he really be the best man for the leadership role under such circumstances? Moody, a man who knows his own mind sufficiently well to have flown in the face of Leicester orthodoxy by agreeing terms with Bath for next season, was keen to keep things in perspective yesterday. "It's a bit bizarre," he admitted, "but while it's a huge honour, nothing will change in terms of me playing my game. There's never just the one voice in the build-up to kick-off anyway."
Talk about a baptism of fire. If England fail to front up this evening, they will find themselves targets in the rugby equivalent of a duck shoot – or rather, a sitting duck shoot. The French are chasing another of their regular Grand Slams, and if anyone was wondering whether they might be growing a little weary of the Six Nations clean-sweep experience, the most revered member of the Tricolore hierarchy disabused them of the notion.
"I have been associated with five Slams," said Jo Maso, the manager. "But there are young players in our team – Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc, Marc Andreu and Alexis Palisson – who have never won one. I've told them they are about to go through one of the best times in their lives because if they win, they will leave their mark on French rugby history. I have told them to enjoy every minute and make sure they have no regrets."
It remains to be seen whether Johnson regrets his decision to run yet another Leicester captain, Louis Deacon, in the second row, rather than promote the Paris-based Tom Palmer. Deacon has been playing the best rugby of his international career, but he is very much a front-jumping lock of the "human tractor" variety and cannot be expected to impersonate Borthwick at line-out time. Palmer, a specialist middle jumper who has been known to deliver on the big occasion, would have been the more potent threat to Les Bleus' operation.
There again, a fluffed line-out here and there may not make much difference. It is difficult to think of many England players who, on current form, might justify a place in this French side – none at all would be the best estimate – and if the home forwards work their way on to the front foot in the opening quarter, the visitors will be in for a very long night indeed. In Parra, the brilliant little scrum-half from Metz, the favourites have one of the players of the tournament; in the full-back Clément Poitrenaud, the hooker William Servat, the flanker Thierry Dusautoir and the No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, they have four more.
England will fight tooth and nail, as they always do. They will certainly defend more aggressively and effectively than the Italians did a week ago. But Ireland, no mean team, worked their collective socks off in Paris in the second round of matches and still went down 33-10. Victory is not out of the question for Johnson's team, but the tide is flowing strongly against them.