The French can talk a brilliant game, especially when England loom large on their horizon. "It's a mythical match for us," said Pascal Papé of Stade Francais, the new captain of Les Bleus, "and losing is not an option." Then came the coach, Philippe Saint-André, and his assertion that in Paris a week on Saturday, his side would "not start with the starter but begin with the main course, with roast beef straight away". When it comes to the word play, Stuart Lancaster and company struggle to keep pace.
Not that Lancaster is much interested in idle chatter. The England head coach spent today's Six Nations launch quietly arguing that after near misses in 2012 and 2013, his players had developed the level of self-belief necessary to hit the championship bullseye. "The belief has grown over the last couple of years and continues to grow," he said. "We want to win series, to win trophies, and we're aiming to win this tournament. But we're not looking past Paris. It starts and ends there as far as our preparations are concerned."
England went into the final weekend of last year's competition with four straight wins, albeit of deterioriating quality. That deterioration was cruelly exposed by Wales, who splattered them all over Cardiff and walked off with the title. Had that experience left a mental scar?
"I hope not," Lancaster replied. "It's how you deal with defeat that matters in this game, how you respond." To that end, he admitted he was happy to see the tough-minded Saracens centre Brad Barritt in the selection mix after long-term injury. "Brad has presence – he's a leader," the coach continued. "This is the first time we've had him with us since that defeat in Wales. It's been a long while and he's only three games into his comeback, but Saracens have played him in some big contests, which is good."
Lancaster admitted that a number of positions were under discussion ahead of the trip across the Channel, with some deeply inexperienced backs – Anthony Watson of Bath, Jonny May of Gloucester, Jack Nowell of Exeter, Luther Burrell of Northampton – scrapping for places. "You can watch as many matches as you like, but I trust my instincts, trust what I see in camp," he said. "It wouldn't be fair to throw in a player against France if he's not ready and I wouldn't do it. But if he looks ready…"
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