Six Nations: France heap rare praise on unchanged England side
England entertain France at Twickenham this weekend
The rite-of-passage Six Nations victory over Ireland in Dublin clarified a number of issues in the mind of Stuart Lancaster, so the England coach's decision to retain the same 23-man squad for this Saturday's meeting with France at Twickenham was straightforward enough. Lancaster released a dozen players back to their clubs last night – a mix of fringe candidates, recent newcomers and injury victims –thereby keeping faith with the usual suspects.
One outsider who might have been in line for a breakthrough selection, the young Wasps No 8 Billy Vunipola, saw his chances go west during a training stint at the team base in Surrey. Vunipola suffered an ankle injury serious enough to kill off any hope of a place on the bench against the Tricolores. He may well miss his club's Premiership trip to London Irish on Sunday into the bargain.
France, meanwhile, were being suspiciously nice about England – an unusual approach that may turn out to have had an ironic dimension. Philippe Saint-André, the coach of Les Bleus, described the title favourites as being in a "state of euphoria", adding that this weekend's contest amounted to his team's "Grand Slam" match.
Frédéric Michalak was even more generous about current red-rose fortunes. "We are going to play against one of the best teams in the world," said the outside-half, who has come under serious fire following two less than majestic performances in the pivot position. For his part, the Toulouse flanker Yannick Nyanga called England "flamboyant", which was something of a first. "They are very good at everything they set their mind to," he continued. "I have not seen many weak spots in their game. To be fair, I have not seen any."
Wales, meanwhile, will face Italy in Rome with a stronger bench than usual, thanks to the presence of the Lions lock Alun Wyn Jones, fresh back from injury, and the displaced captain Sam Warburton, who must quickly find a way of re-establishing himself as a serious force in international rugby if he wants to revive his chances of leading the Lions in Australia.
"Having that experience and potential impact will be so important," said Rob Howley, who is shouldering the head coach duties while Warren Gatland concentrates on Lions selection. "Sam will go on to play many games for Wales, and captain Wales. He is the ultimate professional."
Italy will discover today whether their captain, the magnificent No 8 Sergio Parisse, will be available to them. Parisse must appear before a disciplinary tribunal in Paris after receiving a red card for allegedly insulting the referee Laurent Cardona during a French league game last weekend.
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