Stuart Lancaster: Incredible bulk needed to tackle French heavyweights
England have made it their business to present a smiling face to the world since Stuart Lancaster's arrival as head coach – indeed, the players have been almost unnervingly polite and approachable for more than a year now – but the "after you, Claude" theory of rugby does not extend to selection. Lancaster lifted the veil on his own ruthless streak by making three changes to his starting line-up for the Six Nations meeting with France and if he felt even a tinge of sorrow for the demoted trio, he showed no sign of it.
"I'd have been perfectly content going into this game with the people who started the game against Ireland," he said, referring to the fine victory in Dublin 12 days ago – a triumph on territory so hostile that it might have been beyond any England side of the post-Clive Woodward era. "But for this game on this occasion, and considering the way we want to play against this opposition… we feel this is the right mix. We have bigger, heavier men coming into the side who want to prove a point, and that's good."
By replacing the centre Billy Twelvetrees, the hooker Tom Youngs and the blind-side flanker James Haskell with Manu Tuilagi, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes respectively, the coach believes he has increased the level of pure physicality his side will bring to bear on a French team showing no fewer than seven changes from the one that lost against Italy and Wales, almost all of which can be said to be for the better, even before a scrum has been set or a pass thrown.
It is patently obvious that England expect to be challenged where it hurts most, at close quarters. "We think there are three key areas: the set-piece; the battle on the gainline; and the way the contest unfolds in the last 20 minutes," Lancaster mused. "We want to get it right in the first two of those areas so we're in a good place to take advantage late in the match. We don't expect this game to be decided in the first half."
On the face of it, demotion to the bench is scant reward for prevailing in a battle royal against a vastly more experienced Irish side, and if the front-row arm-wrestle between Youngs and Hartley has always been too close to call, both Twelvetrees and Haskell can feel hard done by.
The absence of Twelvetrees, in particular, means England will go into the game with a creativity deficit, although Lancaster believes the Gloucester midfielder's highly-developed passing game will be influential in the final quarter.
Not for the first time in English rugby history, nor for the 101st time, the red-rose brigade are going into a round of Le Crunch with the intention of crunching first and creating later. Lancaster likes the idea of Lawes, the most merciless of tacklers, causing mayhem in open field – and, in more technical vein, shoring up a line-out that is certain to come under pressure from a well-drilled Tricolore operation.
"The statistics show that France have driven more than half their line-out possession, so they'll be going after us in the mauls," the coach predicted. "Clearly, that's a strong part of their game – and they'll be aware that Ireland took some metres out of us in that area in Dublin.
"We're aware of the threat, but addressing it is not rocket science. You either stop it at source by not letting them have the ball in the first place, or you get you head in there and show some bloody-minded commitment."
Lawes, in particular, seemed ultra-committed yesterday. "France will bring some physicality with them," said the Northampton forward, a wolfish smile spreading on his face. "That's why I've been picked. We don't want them bullying us, do we? We'll have to put a stop to that as soon as possible. You take your shots as they come. If I get a shot, I'll certainly take it."
Less than a week ago, both Lawes and Hartley spent time in the sin-bin as Northampton chiselled out a valuable Premiership victory at Worcester. Lawes was particularly annoyed. "I was actually pulling out of the tackle," he complained, recalling a failed attempt to marmalise the former England outside-half Andy Goode, his intended victim. "I'd have hurt the guy if I'd gone through with it. There are people you don't want to be running into. I'd like to think I'm one of them."
Lancaster will undoubtedly stress the need for iron discipline in the hours before kick-off – "You don't win international matches with 14 men, or by giving away penalties," he remarked yesterday – but equally, he wants his two recalled forwards, not to mention the unusually destructive Tuilagi, to set about their opponents with a rare relish.
"You can't over-prepare for France because they can play it any way they choose," the coach commented, "but a big part of our approach has to be based around limiting their opportunity to attack from broken-field situations. That means showing the kind of discipline we showed against the All Blacks before Christmas."
Yet it might be said that the French, who once walked on the wild side emotionally speaking, have been too correct by half in recent games: they conceded only seven penalties in losing to Wales in front of a disenchanted home crowd last time out. England will not make that mistake. Not with Lawes in the line-up.
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