The year ahead: Confident French pose threat to English progress

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The Independent Online

Landmark years are generally distinguished by either a World Cup or a Lions tour, but the one about to dawn falls neatly between the two. For the first time since 1997 and only the second time in the 130-year history of the international game, England will face all three SANZAR nations – South Africa, New Zealand and Australia – on home soil in as many weeks. A clean sweep next November will establish the red rose army as a top-of-the-bill act on the global stage and mark a high point in Clive Woodward's tenure as the national manager.

Landmark years are generally distinguished by either a World Cup or a Lions tour, but the one about to dawn falls neatly between the two. For the first time since 1997 and only the second time in the 130-year history of the international game, England will face all three SANZAR nations – South Africa, New Zealand and Australia – on home soil in as many weeks. A clean sweep next November will establish the red rose army as a top-of-the-bill act on the global stage and mark a high point in Clive Woodward's tenure as the national manager.

Yet the real lip-smacker will take place well before the autumn: in Paris on 2 March, when England play France in a Six Nations match of immense significance. The Tricolores are in rude health following their recent victories over the Wallabies, the Springboks and the Fijians: they have fast-tracked some exceptional backs – Clement Poitrenaud, Aurélien Rougerie, Frédéric Michalak – into their Test side and reasserted themselves as a scrummaging unit on a par with the Argentinians. They fancy themselves, too – never a good sign for red rose nationalists.

It may be that France will win both the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup, for Stade Français, Montferrand and Castres all have realistic ambitions in the latter direction. They must get past Leicester first, of course, and the Irishmen of Leinster also have designs on the big pot. The pool stage of the tournament has been unusually low-key this season, but the knock-out phase will carry some serious voltage.

And the politics? Just watch the Premiership fraternity attempt to shift the promotion-relegation goalposts if a front-line club – Wasps, say, or Saracens – are bottom of the heap come mid-May. It could get very nasty indeed.

Prediction: Leicester to win at least two of the three domestic competitions, but relinquish their European title.

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