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
England caps: 9
Six Nations sppearances: 3
Current club: Bath (2008-)
England caps: 69
Six Nations appearances: 34
Current club: Gloucester (2005-)
Trophies: World Cup (2003), European Challenge Cup (2006)
France caps: 72
Six Nations appearances: 27
Current club: Toulouse (2002-)
Trophies: Heineken Cup (3),
Top 14 (2)
France caps: 62
Six Nations appearances: 24
Current club: Clermont Auvergne (2000-)
Trophies: ECC (2007) Top 14 (2010)