France are gripped by a crisis of confidence. Two games down, beaten in Italy and on home soil by Wales, and they are bottom of the table. This for a side that has the best record in the dozen years of the Six Nations. There is plenty of doom and gloom around the French game but nothing gets them fired up quite like a game against England. There is history here.
France will be better this weekend than they have been in their opening two games – England have to expect that and will certainly not make the mistake of underestimating their opponents. This will be a tough game and in the opening exchanges it will be brutal.
The opening quarter is key – the French are very good once they get into a game and get a score on the board early doors. That's when the French side of old will emerge, the flair and confidence will return to a side that still has plenty of talent in its ranks. Suddenly the pressure of the world is no longer on them. If they are behind they find it much harder. England have to keep them off the scoreboard through the opening stages and then that pressure will grow weightier and the problems and tensions of Paris and Rome and the last few weeks will return.
It is set to be an almighty battle royal between the two packs in that first quarter. That will play a huge part in determining the direction the match takes. I'm sure we won't see some of the violence of old in these French and English encounters – à la Mickey Skinner, Nigel Heslop and Serge Blanco and the likes – but there will be some real confrontations fought up front especially in the front row. Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Joe Marler are not the types to back down, they are abrasive confrontational characters and know what will be coming at them from the French. That front row battle will be pivotal to setting a good cornerstone for one side. Look for the first couple of scrums to end up in some heated exchanges.
But if England can come through that opening period, and I expect them to do so, then I can see another victory for Stuart Lancaster's side, one with a margin of around 12 points. They must maintain their discipline and not give away soft penalties. If they can win that forward battle they can knock the stuffing out of France and I can see them building a healthy margin.
On the other hand if they lose their discipline and allow France into the match early, give them that fillip on the scoreboard, then it is game on.
Both coaches reveal their sides today. The French focus will be on whether Frédéric Michalak is retained in the No 10 shirt.
I can understand why Philippe Saint-André wants a consistency of selection – he has an idea how he wants his side to play and the players he believes are best suited to deliver that – but I would never have picked Michalak at 10. I find him wanting when the pressure really comes on.
Contrast that with Owen Farrell, who has become so dependable. He is not going to set the world alight like Michalak can occasionally do, but he will make every tackle, he will throw himself into every confrontation, he will get his kicks, from hand or for goal. He has become utterly dependable and to have a guy like that in your team is far more important than someone who can every now and then create a moment of absolute genius that will leave you spellbound, but is a liability in defence, kicking and other areas.
It is not easy for Michalak either, having to switch between playing at 9 for his club and 10 for his country. If you want to hit the highest standards that fly-halves need to then you have to be playing there week-in, week-out, not flipping back and forward.
England are expected to make changes despite their two wins. Tom Youngs has had such a great start to his international career but he had a tough game against Ireland. Dylan Hartley has got the experience, he has been involved at this level for a long time, and Stuart may prefer to give him the shirt back for a game like this.
Courtney Lawes is such a different athlete. The way he put himself about in Dublin impressed. He is absolutely committed to every challenge, a wholehearted performer and that is what he brings, along with his bulk, to the side. Off the pitch he comes across as a laid-back character but he is far from that on the pitch. He reminds me a bit of Danny Grewcock – off the field a gentle giant, on it an absolute beast. It is his tenacity and extra line-out presence that could see him deployed at six against France. It is a role he can fill but he has the ability to be a world-class lock and that is where the long-term focus should be.
I see Manu Tuilagi definitely starting alongside Brad Barritt, which is tough on Billy Twelvetrees, but I know Stuart has a real confidence in Brad's consistency at international level. Consistency for a coach is so important, being able to rely on that level of performance.
Talk of changes highlights what I like about this England side, and squad, at the moment. There are so many players who can step up and do a job, they bring different styles – from full-back with Alex Goode, Mike Brown and Ben Foden, to scrum-half with Danny Care and Ben Youngs, to fly-half with Farrell, Toby Flood and Freddie Burns. There is virtually nothing to pick between so many of them.
Wales and Ireland should both win by 10 points
Elsewhere this weekend I can see two away wins. Ireland may have injury problems but should be 10 points better than the Scots at Murrayfield on Sunday. Wales too should also have enough to enjoy a similar margin over Italy in Rome.
The win in Paris was a huge one for them and should be enough to spark a turnaround in form and confidence. Leaving Sam Warburton on the bench sends a strong message to the whole squad – no one is infallible and if you don't perform, or there is someone else playing better, then you will not start no matter who you are.
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