Flair of France centres could show the folly of England's size obsession

Hape and Tindall are playing 12 and 13 because of their defensive abilities – anathema to the traditions of the free-flowing French

Rugby is a sport soaked – many would say pickled – in its own traditions.

Some are best ignored: large men tottering precariously on barroom tables, serenading their own pint glasses with songs about loose women from obscure parts of the planets...oh dear. Others are a source of pride. New Zealanders have grown accustomed to producing open-side flankers who push back the boundaries of the possible – Waka Nathan, Graham Mourie, Michael Jones, Richie McCaw – while the Welsh have the richest of histories in the half-back department. Think South Africa and you think props. Think Australia and you think wings.

What do we think when we think England? We think of locks, all those Curries and Beaumonts and Colcloughs and Dooleys and Johnsons. And locks are important to any team: indeed, it's well nigh impossible to win a game without them. The worrying begins when the national selectors start picking centres for the same reasons they pick second-row forwards – on the basis of size, strength, power and the breadth of their ruthless streak. The red-rose midfielders who take the field against France at Twickenham this afternoon, Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall, might have been locks three or four generations ago, such is the scale on which they are constructed.

It just so happens that France is the land of the centre. The real centre. To believe this, you do not have to mug up on age-old deeds of derring-do – on the subtlety, sophistication and spectacle associated with the greats of the amateur era: the Boniface brothers of Mont-de-Marsan; Jean-Pierre Lux of Tyrosse; the tiny Jean Gachassin of Lourdes, nicknamed "Peter Pan"; the compelling Jo Maso of Narbonne and his club successor Didier Codornieu, "le petit prince", who may have been the finest passer of a ball ever seen in the European game. It is enough to know that there are eight or nine centres playing across the water right now who might walk blindfolded into today's England line-up.

Everyone in France loves Maxime Mermoz, the young Perpignan midfielder who, while his international appearances were still in single figures, was described as "undroppable" by Marc Lièvremont, coach of Les Bleus. Sadly, he is injured and plays no part this evening. Martin Johnson, the England manager, would surely pick Damien Traille or Mathieu Bastareaud on the basis of size alone. Then there are Florian Fritz of Toulouse, Benoît Baby of Clermont Auvergne and another Perpignan regular in David Marty, not to mention underachievers like Thibault Lacroix of Bayonne, who may yet find a way of bringing the best of himself to his top-flight career.

As it is, England must deal with Lièvremont's current choices: Aurélien Rougerie, comfortably big enough to interest even an England selector while being quick enough to have played Test rugby on the wing; and Yannick Jauzion, described this week by the red-rose attack coach, Brian Smith, as "among the very greatest of French centres". That is some claim, given the competition, but Smith understands a thing or two about the subject and is more than entitled to his opinion.

It is difficult to imagine the Tricolores concocting an attacking strategy that involves everyone except the men wearing Nos 12 and 13, but then, it is equally hard to think of them picking two centres on purely defensive grounds. One perhaps, but never two. England? They're different animals to the French, as Lièvremont pointed out so colourfully at the start of the week. Statistics from the last Six Nations outing against Italy showed that Toby Flood, the outside-half and playmaker-in-chief who, just to confuse matters, is regarded by some sound judges as the most potent inside centre in the country by a distance best measured in light years, passed more often to Mark Cueto, his left wing, than to Tindall and Hape combined. If anything tells a tale, that does.

Not that Hape, recruited by Bath from rugby league three years ago, gives anything resembling a damn. "The French are physical, but so are we," he says. "That's the reason the likes of Mike Tindall and myself are in midfield. We are both 100kg-plus, and when people run straight at us we can make our tackles. If ever we let them run through us, it will probably be the last time we play at Twickenham.

"I hear the criticism, the people who say we don't do this or that, but I think we're doing a good job. Yes, we're in for our defence, but that's central to how we're trying to play as a team. Generally, it was the English way to go with an inside centre who was essentially a second outside-half, a good distributor with a strong kicking game. Olly Barkley, my team-mate at Bath, is that kind of player and he's brilliant at it. But if you look around the world now, there are a lot of power players being chosen in the No 12 position: Ma'a Nonu in New Zealand, Jean de Villiers in South Africa, Jamie Roberts in Wales. Jauzion himself is hardly a small bloke.

"In the end I'm not the one picking the side, and anyway, there are more important things in life to worry about than what people are saying. I feel I'm in a good place, moving in a good direction, and I believe I'm playing in a side that's producing a lot of good rugby."

Smith, the architect of this unusual approach to attacking rugby – an approach based on the triangle of scrum-half, outside-half and wing, with footballing forwards like Nick Easter and Dylan Hartley filling in behind – may or may not be wholly convinced by his own handiwork. In one breath, he argues strongly that this is the way forward. "A team needs power runners," he says. "Some sides have those power runners in the back row. We have them in midfield." With the next, he leaves himself some wriggle room. "We'd all like to have a No 12 who has everything: a power runner who is also a great distributor and also has a big kicking game and what have you," he acknowledges. "But those are rare beasts. You can never have the perfect system and I know this is not everyone's cup of tea."

It was not so very long ago that Smith could be heard singing hosannas about some very different centres. He was excited by the potential of Shane Geraghty, the Northampton midfielder he had once coached at London Irish, as a No 12 of the "second stand-off" variety, and he lavished praise on Mathew Tait during the early stages of last season's Six Nations. And what happened to Tait? The moment France loomed into view with the brick-outhouse Bastareaud wedged into their back division, England recalled Tindall: a slower and less inventive player but, crucially, a bigger one.

Does Smith really believe in the Hape-Tindall combination, or is he making the best of a Hobson's Choice situation foisted upon him by Johnson and the other Leicester hard-heads on the back-room staff? If the latter is the truth of the matter, there is not much chance of him saying so in public. And who can blame the coach for playing a straight bat when those who are in a position to speak without fear or favour struggle to reach a conclusion?

Jeremy Guscott, the finest English centre of the modern age, and Mike Catt, a World Cup-winning midfielder in 2003 who played in a second final four years later, could be heard discussing this very issue a couple of nights ago. Guscott tried to be positive about the current set-up, but could not quite bring himself to give it his stamp of approval and threw garlands at the back-three unit of Cueto, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden instead. Catt, who will be coaching Hape at London Irish next season, was a little more enthusiastic, but could not help questioning whether the England staff were developing the naturalised New Zealander's game as quickly or ambitiously as they might.

There are two things for the red-rose strategists to ponder as another World Cup draws near. What happens when Ashton and Cueto are put under lock and key by a clever, well-briefed defence, as is bound to happen sooner or later, and the centres are called upon to offer something with the ball as well as without it? And what happens when an opposing midfield pairing absorb the physical pounding dished out by the English pair and start running them around? It may be that the French tap into their own wonderful tradition and demand answers to both of these questions today.

Central Issue: How France's 12 and 13 measure up to England's

Shontayne Hape

Age: 29

England caps: 9

Tries: 0

Six Nations sppearances: 3

Current club: Bath (2008-)

Trophies: 0

Mike Tindall

Age: 32

England caps: 69

Tries: 14

Six Nations appearances: 34

Current club: Gloucester (2005-)

Trophies: World Cup (2003), European Challenge Cup (2006)

Yannick Jauzion

Age: 32

France caps: 72

Tries: 20

Six Nations appearances: 27

Current club: Toulouse (2002-)

Trophies: Heineken Cup (3),

Top 14 (2)

Aurelien Rougerie

Age: 30

France caps: 62

Tries: 22

Six Nations appearances: 24

Current club: Clermont Auvergne (2000-)

Trophies: ECC (2007) Top 14 (2010)

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Life and Style
Stepping back in time: The Robshaws endured the privations of the 1950s
food + drinkNew BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?