This time last week, Lewis Moody was confident of leading England against France in tomorrow evening's much-anticipated Six Nations match at Twickenham – the centrepiece of this season's tournament in factual terms, and quite possibly in metaphorical ones as well. As of yesterday, it is by no means certain that the Bath flanker will make the Calcutta Cup game with Scotland in 16 days' time, or, indeed, feature in the competition at all. His knee ligament problems, which first arose in mid-January, are far from sorted.
Martin Johnson did not give the slightest hint yesterday that Moody might soon be a going concern. "He's gone back to his club and he'll have to take it day by day," the manager said. "Lewis is our captain and we all know what he brings to the side. He's worked incredibly hard to get right and he thought he'd be ready for this game. It hasn't worked out, but these things happen. We're more than happy to stay with Tom Wood and James Haskell as our flankers. They've done everything expected of them so far."
Increasingly, Johnson is taking the old Clive Woodward approach to selection; that is to say, doing as little selecting as possible. He would not have made a change to the starting line-up that did duty on opening night in Wales but for the back injury that forced the loose-head prop Andrew Sheridan out of the side ahead of the meeting with Italy, and now Sheridan is fit again, it is a case of "status quo ante" as far as this weekend's proceedings are concerned. Alex Corbisiero, the young London Irish front-rower who made his Test debut against the Azzurri, will be on the replacements' bench. That aside, it is as you were.
Johnson would not be drawn on the wider importance of this contest. "People are calling it a Grand Slam decider, but that's factually incorrect," he said. "In fact, it's totally incorrect. The French think that if they win here, they'll win it all. They've made that clear and maybe they're right. But from our perspective, this is simply the next game."
The manager was right to adopt a cautious note. While France won in Dublin last time out – "The result of the tournament so far, in my view," Johnson said – England do not travel to Ireland until the last round of matches on 19 March. As they have not prevailed in that fair city since Johnson himself led the charge towards a famous Grand Slam in 2003, the notion that all this England vintage have to do to emulate that achievement is beat Les Blues tomorrow is fanciful in the extreme.
All Johnson was prepared to promise yesterday was a bold approach to the challenge of ending the champions' eight-match run of Six Nations victories. "We are absolutely committed to our attacking ambition," he said. "But at the same time, we cannot afford to be predictable. We have to play what's there, what's in front of us. France have an all-round game: they can be very physical, they have pace, they scrummage strongly, they have an extremely dangerous driving maul. Everything has to be taken into account.
"I don't know how many times I played against them or what my record was. I do know that it was always bloody difficult. Their heavy defeat by Australia last November was a bit of an eye-opener – when I heard the Wallabies had scored 50-odd points, it was one of those 'are you sure?' moments – but to me, they're where they always are in the sense that they can beat anyone in the world. If we pressurise them for 80 minutes, we'll be in the game. If we give them too many shots, they'll hurt us."
France have lost their full-back Maxime Médard to a hamstring injury, so Clément Poitrenaud, who started the game in Dublin, returns to the starting line-up, with Alexis Palisson of Brive filling the spare seat on the bench. Médard, one of the star turns of the tournament to date, had been moved from the left wing because the coach Marc Lièvremont wanted to accommodate the high-calibre Toulouse wing Vincent Clerc in his back division.Reuse content