Back in the days when half the French pack looked as though they were about to join the Foreign Legion and the other half looked as though they had just escaped from it, England's rugby players took the field expecting all hell to break loose at the first scrum. This evening at Twickenham, red-rose apprehension will take a very different form. Nicolas Mas and Yoann Maestri? They can be dealt with, tough as they are. A 12-stone scrum-half by the name of Morgan Parra? He's a different proposition altogether.
So different, in fact, that the England coaches see him as the principal threat to their Six Nations ambitions. The recalled half-back from Metz has been in blinding form for Clermont Auvergne this season, as he has been every season since joining the French league's boundary-pushing club in 2009. What is it he does so well? It would be far quicker to list the things he does poorly.
No one on this side of the water has quite worked out why Parra did not start Les Bleus' tournament games with Italy and Wales: indeed, one wag suggested this week that Philippe Saint-André's volte-face on the No 9 question could only have been the product of a serious outbreak of common sense. While it is true that Parra did not play at scrum-half when France knocked England out of the last World Cup, there was a legitimate reason: he was selected at outside-half so that Dimitri Yachvili, a tactician of equal of stature, could play too. With no Yachvili in the current squad, there has been no such excuse this time.
If Parra is allowed to run things his way, the title favourites will find themselves in difficulties. "He's right up there on the list of the world's best half-backs," acknowledged Mike Catt, who, as England's attacking skills coach, recognises an unusually skilful attacking player when he sees one. "Philippe must have had his reasons for picking him on the bench in previous matches, but Parra has proved he is exceptional at controlling a game. I think this is the real France coming our way. With him in their side, they are capable of doing whatever they want to do."
On the evidence of England's last outing – the deeply characterful victory over Ireland in Dublin 13 days ago – their own scrum-half is heading back towards the sunlit uplands after a poor run that took him down towards the earth's core. Ben Youngs was a major contributor to the win at Lansdowne Road: he kicked cleverly, kept the Irish back-rowers honest around the fringes, made a high percentage of correct calls in difficult conditions and, perhaps most crucially of all, maintained a clear head when people such as Cian Healy, a serial transgressor in the green-shirted pack, were losing theirs. A repeat performance against Parra will guarantee that the half-back contest is one for the connoisseurs.
There are many old-timers who – let's be honest here – mourn the passing of the open brutality of past decades, which was frequently at its most extreme when the French came to town. The most celebrated account of a rugby tour ever published in the land of the Tricolores was written more than half a century ago by Denis Lalanne and goes by the name "The Great Fight of the French XV." In its pages, a record of the ground-breaking victory over the Springboks in 1958, we read of a wonderful one-way conversation involving Lucien Mias, the captain of Les Bleus, and the South African referee Lammie Louw.
"Sir," said Mias, ever so politely. "Once and for all I want to tell you that my team is doing its best to play fair. But if you don't protect us from dirty blows, I warn you that I'll let loose the dogs." Which he duly did, in the form of the terrifying prop Alfred Roques. Ah, those were the days.
As Saint-André remarked at the start of a week that, one way or another, could come to be seen as a turning point in his stewardship of the national team, that kind of rugby "belongs to the museum". But this game will be punishingly hard in other ways. If a heavily revamped French front row establish a degree of superiority in the scrums – and Dan Cole, the cornerstone of the England set-piece, has had his failures against the awkward Thomas Domingo, as well as his successes – Parra will be granted an extra few inches of space in which to work his alchemy. Those inches will be bitterly contested.
Similarly, the scrap between the back fives of the rival packs will be as intense as it ever was. Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, has gone for height by picking Courtney Lawes ahead of James Haskell – a clear indication that he considers the line-out to be key theatre of action. Saint-André, on the other hand, has chosen a specialist open-side flanker in Yannick Nyanga, who is blessed with genuine pace and has the capacity to change the nature of the gain-line battle by ensuring it occurs in unusual areas of the field – much as Michael Hooper, the Wallaby breakaway, did to stunning effect against England in November.
In short, the French have the ability to ask some extremely difficult questions of their great cross-Channel rivals. Whether they are in the right frame of mind to ask them is another matter. On the face of it, Saint-André has not only selected the right players, but also picked them in the right positions – something of a departure from the recent norm. It will, however, be the devil's own job to restore confidence to a team who were booed off the field by their own supporters only a fortnight ago.
England are in a far better place psychologically, and that should make the difference here. But as some of the finest sides in the history of the sport have discovered to their cost, it takes only the flick of a switch for a French side to dazzle their way out of the darkness.
Results so far
Wales 22-30 Ireland, England 38-18 Scotland, Italy 23-18 France; Scotland 34-10 Italy, France 6-16 Wales, Ireland 6-12 England.
* Remaining fixtures
Italy v Wales (2.30pm)
England v France (5pm)
Scotland v Ireland (2pm)
Scotland v Wales (2.30pm)
Ireland v France (5pm)
England v Italy (3pm)
Italy v Ireland (2.30pm)
Wales v England (5pm)
France v Scotland (8pm)
* All matches live on BBC 1
Against the odds: when France have shocked Twickenham
England 3 France 11, February 1951
France had never won at Twickenham, so it was an entirely appropriate that a back-row forward from Lourdes, the great Jean Prat, should produce the rugby miracle that changed rugby history. He converted a first-half try by Guy Basquet, scored one himself after the break and also dropped a goal.
England 12 France 16: March 1981
Bill Beaumont's side had won the Grand Slam the previous year and were not expected to lose, even though Les Bleus travelled with Serge Blanco and the sublime Didier Codorniou among their backs. Early tries by Pierre Lacans and Laurent Pardo put the visitors 16-0 up. There was no way back.
England 20 France 23: March 1997
Phil de Glanville's men had won seven successive games and opened up a 20-6 lead, only for the French, inspired by a flurry of points from Christophe Lamaison, to stage the most dramatic of comebacks. Jack Rowell, the England coach, was caught on microphone muttering: "I don't believe what I'm seeing."Reuse content