England vs France: 'France showdown is like a big World Cup tie,' says Stuart Lancaster

The finale to the Six Nations takes place on Saturday

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Stuart Lancaster has pretty much covered the emotional waterfront over the course for four Six Nations campaigns, but the England head coach expects to experience something entirely new when this year’s tournament reaches its climax at Twickenham tomorrow evening. “I can’t think of another competition in international sport where this situation could arise,” he said yesterday. “The last day of a Ryder Cup is probably the closest comparison.”

With England, Ireland and Wales all chasing a title that is well nigh certain to be decided on points difference – even France, whose interest in the outcome is purely mathematical at this stage, might sneak in at the death by winning in London if the two Celtic challengers lose their final matches in Edinburgh and Rome respectively – the twists and turns could indeed resemble the compelling dramas famously staged on the greens and fairways of Medinah and Celtic Manor. It remains to be seen whether Lancaster’s men end their big day sinking the rugby equivalent of a three-footer to seize the spoils, or find themselves up to their eyebrows in sand.

The coach did not quite say that he felt his side deserved a first Championship victory since 2011 – a first triumph on home soil in almost two decades – but privately, he believes England have played enough bright rugby with ball in hand to merit some tangible reward. “I think we’ve been more consistent than any other team in terms of the attacking game,” he argued. “We’ve scored 11 tries, more than twice as many as any other side in contention for the title, and we would be sitting on a tally of 15 if we’d taken our chances against Scotland last weekend.”

But as Geoff Parling, recalled by Lancaster to the starting line-up after an eye-catching cameo off the bench on Calcutta Cup day, was quick to point out, there is a big difference between what a team thinks it deserves and what the gods of the game choose to grant. “I’d say we deserve it on the basis of how hard people have grafted, but there are a few teams out there who could say something similar,” commented the Lions lock from Leicester, whose highly developed skills as a line-out manager and ability to offer some cold-eyed clarity in the heat of the forward battle will be key elements in England’s make-up. “In the end, we’ll deserve it only if we go out there and win it.”

 

If the Bath second-rower Dave Attwood feels a little aggrieved at being bombed out of the match-day squad altogether after eight industrious Test performances in succession – Nick Easter, the venerable Harlequins  No 8, has been recalled to the bench on the grounds that he will make a greater footballing impact if England are chasing points at the back end of the game – he at least knows where he stands. Lancaster was up front and honest when explaining his thinking yesterday.

“I’ve made the change partly for reasons of impact, but there are performance reasons too,” the coach said. “We’ve been giving Dave consistent messages in asking him to work on particular areas of his game and he’s accepted it. It was a close call, but Geoff was very good when he was given his chance against the Scots. And anyway, there were a lot of close calls.”

 

One of them was at hooker, where Tom Youngs of Leicester was within a gnat’s crotchet of displacing the long-time incumbent, Dylan Hartley of Northampton. Lancaster also gave the marginalised Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care a mention in dispatches. Once the coach’s favourite half-back, Care has dropped to third in the pecking order, behind Ben Youngs and Richard Wigglesworth. Lancaster revealed that he had found this the most difficult selection issue of the tournament.

He should worry. Philippe Saint-André, his opposite number across the Channel, has faced more issues than flesh and blood can stand, thanks to a brutal run of injuries and severe shortages of international-class options in important positions.

For this weekend’s game, he has lost both his outside-half Camille Lopez – the gifted Stade Français playmaker Jules Plisson will perform the No 10 duties – and his loose-head prop, the exciting Eddy Ben Arous. The Clermont Auvergne front-rower Vincent Debaty starts at the sharp end, with two tight-head specialists, Rabah Slimani of Stade Français and the even bigger Uini Atonio of La Rochelle, a 24st 6lb slab of Samoan-reared beef, among the replacements.

England expect an intense physical challenge, especially in the opening 20 minutes, but Lancaster believes the significance of the occasion will push his team to the necessary heights. “These are the great days in sport,” he said. “The outcome won’t define our World Cup campaign later this year, but a Six Nations victory in front of the Twickenham crowd would definitely help us in our preparations. And, in a way, this does feel like how I imagine a big World Cup game to be.”

So how will Lancaster adapt his pre-match routine to reflect the unusual circumstances surrounding the last tournament match before the global gathering in September? “The crowd will know exactly what we have to do to win the title, and so will the players,” he replied. “The Scotland-Ireland game should be finished by 4.20, so at 4.28, just before we go out for our warm-up, I’ll sit the team down and say: ‘Right, this is what we need. Let’s get at it.’

“But we’ll have to control ourselves emotionally and stick to the plan. If we’re looking for a 10-point victory and we concede 10 in the opening few minutes, we’ll suddenly be chasing 20 points – and that kind of scoring isn’t easy in international rugby.”

Might he take some satisfaction in a straight win, even if England finish runners-up for the fourth year in a row? The coach paused for a second before saying: “There might be some joy eventually, but if it happens, all I’ll feel after the game is disappointment.”

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