Lancaster defends Farrell choice for Paris battle
England coach ignores the critics and backs unchanged side to shock experienced French
The selection of an unchanged England team? That was the easy bit after the bright performance against Wales last time out, even though Stuart Lancaster claimed to have thought long and hard about the outside-half position and the three players tugging away at the No 10 shirt. The hard part of beating France in their own capital is, and will always be, finding a way of getting the ball to the principal playmaker in the first place. "This," the caretaker coach admitted, "is a very big challenge, especially for the forwards."
Nevertheless, before dealing with the detail of that challenge – of how a newly-minted tight unit might neutralise the Tricolore threat at the scrum and blunt the line-out threat posed by such accomplished practitioners as Julien Bonnaire and the sensational Imanol Harinordoquy, the Basque No 8 whose mastery did for England on World Cup quarter-final day in Auckland five months ago – Lancaster had to address the No 10 issue, as raised by the sharp-tongued Leicester head coach Matt O'Connor in midweek.
O'Connor rounded on the England selectors after Toby Flood, the World Cup midfielder and most experienced Test hand among the contenders for the playmaking role, was declared surplus to requirements after training on Tuesday. Lancaster, the Australian pronounced, was not interested in "creative players", being more concerned with not losing games than actually winning them. In short, O'Connor was spectacularly unimpressed.
"That's up to Matt," responded Lancaster, diplomatic as ever. "I learned very early in this job that there are a lot of opinions out there, and people are entitled to hold those opinions. From my point of view, everything comes back to what we believe in as a group. At the last meeting we held as players and management, I said the only thing that really mattered was what went on inside the room. Ultimately, performance is driven by self-belief. I think the people who were in there believe in themselves, in each other and in what we're trying to do.
"Do we want to score tries? Absolutely. We want to score as many points as we can, and tries provide you with the best chance of doing that. But the reality of international rugby is that there are some bloody good players trying to stop you scoring those tries. Defences are tight and they're well-organised. You need to take that into account, especially as France will defend in a different way to the way Wales defended against us at Twickenham."
Central as Flood is to England's long-term planning – the national team might have been spared at least some of the pain suffered in New Zealand last autumn had the manager Martin Johnson been bold enough to stick with him as his first-choice No 10 rather than revert to Jonny Wilkinson as the safety-first option – there was never the slightest possibility of him being picked ahead of the Saracens youngster Owen Farrell for tomorrow's game in the northern reaches of Paris.
Equally, it is hard to argue with the decision to recall Charlie Hodgson to the bench. When a coach talks, as Lancaster has, about the value of loyalty and expects the message to be taken seriously, the placing of money in the general vicinity of the mouth is not just important, but essential. Hodgson would have started against Wales, but for a frustratingly minor injury to his finger. Had he been ditched from this latest match-day squad, he could legitimately have cried "foul".
Farrell may be only three games into what promises to be a long and satisfying international career, but he is already a key component in England's defensive operation. And for all the talk of try-scoring, defence will be the watchword tomorrow. When France score early against their great rivals in these championship encounters, as they did through Gérald Merceron and Harinordoquy in 2002 and through Florian Fritz four years later, they tend to win comfortably. Given the gulf in experience between the two sides, they can be expected to start fast this time as a means of driving home their advantage in the know-how department.
Come to think of it, they did pretty well for themselves on the "hit the ground sprinting" front in last October's global quarter-final, reaching the interval 16 points to the good. Had Lancaster's men cast an eye over those events in planning for this resumption of hostilities? "It's interesting," he replied. "The players have made very little reference to it. They've talked much more about the last Six Nations game at Stade de France, in 2010."
There are only four survivors from the team who started that narrow 12-10 defeat: the full-back Ben Foden, the wing Chris Ashton, the hooker Dylan Hartley and the tight-head prop Dan Cole. There again, only five – Foden, Ashton, Cole, the centre Manu Tuilagi and the flanker Tom Croft – are still in place post-Auckland. England are in a state of flux that contrasts sharply with French solidity. "France are a mature team," Lancaster pointed out. "They have been to a World Cup final, they have an average age of 30 or 31, they have 900 caps between them."
Under the circumstances, Philippe Saint-André's side should be very hot favourites indeed. But they are unsure of themselves in midfield – François Trinh-Duc has been replaced at outside-half by the kick-obsessed Lionel Beauxis; Aurélien Rougerie is miles out of form in the centre – and strangely indecisive at scrum-half. Saint-André might have recalled Dimitri Yachvili, who marked his return from injury by scoring 25 points for Biarritz last weekend. Instead, he has plumped for Julien Dupuy, who has more than a touch of the Yachvilis about him but is, by definition, less authentic than the real thing.
Last week against Ireland, the Tricolores struggled to retain possession at the ruck when Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and the magnificent Stephen Ferris caught the whiff of a potential turnover. If England's back-row unit can find a way of making a similar impact, it is possible to see the game being decided late in the day – perhaps, if the Gods are smiling on Lancaster, by the boot of the astonishingly self-assured Farrell (always assuming he does not fall down with cramp, as he did against Wales).
Thus far, the red-rose loose forwards have been worryingly conciliatory when it comes to contesting the ball on the floor. Conciliation is not generally considered to be a feature of cross-Channel games, however. Assuming the England leave their good manners behind, they are capable of making a proper fist of it.
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The Toulouse full-back is a player of moods and moments, some of them brilliant, others rather less so. Picked because Maxime Médard, his mutton-chopped clubmate, suffered a serious knee injury earlier in the championship, he is, when the stars are in alignment, Médard's equal as a broken-field runner. And that's saying something.
A newcomer to Test rugby, the much talked-about centre from Clermont Auvergne has scored tries in each of his three Six Nations starts. Selected ahead of the Perpignan midfielder Maxime Mermoz – a man described by the last coach, Marc Lièvremont, as "undroppable" – he combines raw power with slide-rule running lines.
On his day – and those days tend to dawn when there is something really important at stake – the captain delivers performances that touch greatness. His defensive effort against the All Blacks in the 2007 World Cup was the stuff of legend, as was his display in last year's global final. A majestic flanker.
Results so far: France 30-12 Italy, Scotland 6-13 England, Ireland 21-23 Wales; Italy 15-19 England, Wales 27-13 Scotland; Ireland 42-10 Italy, England 12-19 Wales, Scotland 17-23 France; France 17-17 Ireland.
Remaining fixtures: Today Wales v Italy, Ireland v Scotland. Tomorrow France v England. 17 Mar Italy v Scotland, Wales v France, England v Ireland.
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