Brian Smith: Why Stuart Lancaster is right to change a winning England team for the wounded French

Coach’s View: France will be hurting, and that makes them dangerous

After winning a tough game in Dublin – hardly the most fertile territory for England teams down the years – it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Stuart Lancaster to play the continuity card and keep his side intact for the visit of the French this evening. The easiest, but not necessarily the best.

There is always a temptation to follow the well-worn "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy, but looking at it from a fellow coach's perspective, I can understand his decision to tweak things here and there.

In tournament rugby other philosophies come into play, "horses for courses" being the most common. To take just one example: the French have a very effective line-out, even if other parts of their game have gone fuzzy on them, and for that reason a change in the back row makes sense – despite the fact that James Haskell had one of his good days in Dublin (leaving aside the yellow card incident).

One of the vital things in selection is not to argue yourself out of backing your own instincts: the longer you spend second-guessing your gut feeling, the more blurred your thinking becomes. As coaches, we've all experienced the perils of over-rationalising. I think Stuart understands the importance of being brave and getting on with it, however tough it might be on the player or players concerned.

Who, apart from the coaches involved, knows exactly what is going on inside the group? There are so many potential variables – form in training, tactics and strategy, fitness levels, behavioural issues – that it would be ridiculous to make a principle out of not changing a winning team. And besides, opponents are always looking to gain ground on you. If you simply stick with the same blokes and keep doing the same things, your rivals will run you down.

After a try-sweetened opening round of Six Nations matches, the second helping was a little harder to swallow: I felt there was something anti-climactic about the contest in Dublin, fierce though it undoubtedly was. The conditions had a lot to do with the narrowness of the game – Ireland, in particular, found straightforward handling duties difficult to master – and it came down to who won the penalty calls, and where on the field they won them.

Strange as it sounds, the moment Haskell was sent to the sin-bin – a pretty harsh call, all things considered – I thought England would be the ones to benefit if they stayed calm and did the right things in the right places. Very often, a referee who shows a yellow card in a tight game evens things out by awarding penalties to the team he has just punished. I'm sure it's a subconscious thing but there's no doubt in my mind it happens.

England took full advantage. At professional level, you plan for these eventualities by working out attacking ploys when you're a man up and defensive ones when you're a man down. You don't spend all week talking about them and you don't involve the whole squad in the discussion – there's no point bringing the mood down – but the main decision-makers go through all the ramifications because you need to know where you're going if the worst comes to the worst. To England's credit, they covered all the bases.

Today, the psychology of the match will be different. France are hurting, and that makes them dangerous. There must be a lot of doubt swirling around their heads but, equally, they'll find it easy to engage with the emotional side of the game and come out with high levels of energy and desire. They'll have spent the week really building this one up, and while it won't be like the old days – we don't have really vicious punch-ups now, regardless of how much wounded pride there is in the mix – I can see them going after England at the early scrums, driving their line-outs and trying to knock them out of their stride in the tackle.

There cannot be a rugby man out there who hasn't felt flat after a couple of miserable defeats, and when that happens you crave a grand stage more than you do a quiet backwater. The bigger the game, the better. I suspect the French are much happier to be playing England this weekend than they would have been facing Scotland, because in rugby you achieve redemption through the taking of a major scalp.

That was a Gatland clanger!

I was amused by the controversy generated by Warren Gatland's comments about Lions selection for the forthcoming Test series in Australia. Warren does a lot of his talking with tongue firmly in cheek and, as I know from my time coaching England, he enjoys taking a swipe at the guys in the white shirts. But I suspect this latest contribution to public discourse was a genuine clanger. Five minutes after saying that a big English presence in the Lions squad might be problematic, I bet he was wishing he'd bitten his tongue.

When Warren flies to Australia, he'll take his strongest side with him. He'll pick on form, and nothing else. Mind you, if his beloved Wales continue to improve and there's a close call between a couple of their players and a couple of Englishmen when the countries meet in Cardiff next month – maybe then he'll go with the player he knows best and trusts the most.

Brian Smith is rugby director at London Irish and former England attack coach. His fee for this article has been donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital


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