For Philippe Saint-André it is all about the main course, pushing aside the starter and going straight for the beef, red raw beef if the line-up the French coach has chosen for this evening in Paris is anything to go on. Saint-André expects a battle, Stuart Lancaster expects a battle, every man and their chien expects a battle.
“We start with the main course, Les Rosbifs straight away,” said Saint-André when naming his side, a match-day squad heavy on bruisers with six of the eight places on the bench taken by forwards. This is a crunch fixture for a coach who has yet to convince the French public that his tenure will take Les Bleus to unexplored heights come the 2015 World Cup.
That gathering across the Channel next year was Saint-André’s goal when he was appointed at the end of 2011, but two poor Six Nations campaigns, including last year’s embarrassing collection of the wooden spoon, have increased the need for the short-term fillip of an immediate victory, one for the here and now.
Saint-André insists the French rugby public is understanding of his and the team’s predicament – the injuries, the building for 2015 and the problems presented by the Top 14’s import of enough foreigners to start a legion – but he accepts that patience is finite.
“This match is huge for us because we need to start the Six Nations with a win,” said Saint-André. “England performed well last year, while 2013 was very, very disappointing for us. But we knew it would be difficult with so many new players.
“The French public love the French team. They understand. But they also want success, so it’s time for us to win some games. And we always say, ‘If you beat England then your international season is not so bad.’ So it’s huge for us.”
It is huge for Saint-André in particular. He has three wins from 10 games in the Six Nations, and oversaw only two wins in the whole of 2013. France’s recent record against England reads little better; they have lost their last three and have only a solitary win in seven meetings.
If that is to be rewritten then it will need his selection to come off not only up front but even more so with his new half-back pairing of Jules Plisson at 10 and Jean-Marc Doussain at nine. It is the 10th different combination Saint-André has sent out during his two-year incumbency.
Plisson, an adept dropper of goals, has long been identified as a future international, having played for France at Under-18, -19 and -20 levels. Yet the full house was not expected to arrive quite so quickly for a 22-year-old who has played only 985 minutes of top-flight rugby.
With Rémi Talès and Camille Lopez injured, Saint-André was not blessed with options, although he could have played François Trinh-Duc, who shone against England last season. But, like Lancaster’s similarly callow selection, he has gone on form and Plisson is playing the best of the fit French 10s in the Top 14, indeed his Stade Français side head the table. The South African Morne Steyn was expected to play the pivotal role for Stade this season but Plisson, unlike a number of his compatriots across the league, has kept the incomer out.
“Jules has a lot of variety in his game, he had to start one day,” said Saint-André. “Everything will be easier for him if his team-mates make an impact going forward, if the forwards win their battles. So it’s up to our pack to make things easier for our halves pairing, which is young and talented. Plisson is one of, if not the best fly-half in the French league at the moment so why would I be scared to pick a young player?”