There is no doubt that England can win - and win well - for they have seen off better French sides than this in recent years. If Abdel Benazzi, the visiting captain, is to be believed, the Tricolores have only a 30 per cent chance of victory - a figure that just about equates with the suspected fitness level of Benazzi's hugely influential outside-half, Alain Penaud - and it will come as no great surprise if the Red Rose is in full bloom come the final whistle.
But as Tim Rodber, the England No 8, said yesterday, the unfamiliarity of the French line-up only adds to the potential pitfalls lying in the path of the favourites. Had Emile Ntamack, Philippe Saint-Andre, Thomas Castaignede and Richard Dourthe been strutting their stuff across the greensward, England would have known what to expect. By comparison, the likes of Laurent Leflamand and David Venditti are, for the time being at least, spectres in the darkness.
The danger for England is that they simply cannot predict how the French will approach what amounts to a Five Nations title decider. Benazzi, a great back-row forward in anyone's language, is hard-headed enough to take the pragmatic line (pragmatic? a French swearword surely). On the other hand, he may just throw caution to the wind on the basis that his side have far less to lose than their opponents.
Now that really would be worth watching. Penaud and Venditti apart, there are two other members of the Brive back division on view and if Philippe Carbonneau and Christophe Lamaison enjoy anything like the space given to them by Leicester in the final of the Heineken Cup in January, England will be playing for pride rather than a Grand Slam when they reach Cardiff in a fortnight's time.
The right attitude will be of the essence for both sides, which brings us neatly back to Monsieur Merle, the man mountain from Montferrand via Grenoble. His view of the English rugby mentality - "very unappealing, for their players are arrogant and pretentious" - might carry more clout were it not for his own reputation as an Alp-sized liquidator with an over-active right fist. As Ricky Evans, an aggrieved Welsh prop, is prepared to testify in court, Merle is no one's idea of a "play up and play the game" traditionalist.
It is, though, true to say that the French have taken some public steps towards cleaning up their act. Merle, Dourthe and Franck Tournaire have all been suspended for violent transgressions during the past three seasons and those efforts are in stark contrast to England's under-the-carpet approach. The Rugby Football Union will not want to hear this, but the French are getting it right more often than most these days.
Sensibly, both Jack Rowell, the England coach, and Phil de Glanville, his captain, have spent much of the last week emphasising the supreme importance of discipline. "We became involved in a few things that would have been better avoided during the first few minutes in Dublin a fortnight back and it's essential that we steer clear of that trap against the French," said De Glanville, whose powers of leadership were rightly extolled by Rowell earlier in the week.
Today's match could scarcely be more important from De Glanville's point of view. Omitted from the preliminary Lions squad of 62 and heavily criticised in some quarters for the perceived anonymity of his international performances, he must prove to his doubters, Fran Cotton included, that he can do more than simply organise the players around him. To be blunt, he needs to catch the eye on centre stage rather than pull a few strings from behind the curtain.
As so often this season, untimely injury has hindered the captain's preparation. The ankle problems that affected De Glanville earlier this week are said to have cleared, but then Penaud is reported by the French to be in the pink as well. The black arts of disinformation are as rife in rugby as in every other walk of life and it will be no shock if both Jeremy Guscott and David Aucagne, the talented stand-off from Pau, make it off the bench and on to the pitch.
With a young English pack showing early signs of impending greatness, De Glanville and his fellow backs should see more than enough of the ball to secure victory and thus set up a mighty finale at Cardiff Arms Park. Although the French back row looks a class unit, especially now that Olivier Magne is involved on a full-time basis, the home trio showed enough against Ireland to suggest that they will shade it in the loose. Equally, it is hard to see the French tight forwards forcing Jason Leonard and company into their shells, especially as there is no Olivier Roumat to test Simon Shaw's mettle in the middle of the line-out.
Perhaps more than in any other match this season, the first 15 minutes hold the key. Five weeks ago, Brive caught Leicester so cold that by the time the Tigers realised they had a game on their hands, it had already slipped away. If England can hit the ground running, they should avoid a similar fate.
Leonard and Benazzi profiles, Scots look to Tait, page 28
ENGLAND v FRANCE
T Stimpson Newcastle 15 J-L Sadourny Colomiers
J Sleightholme Bath 14 L Leflamand Bourgoin
W Carling Harlequins 13 C Lamaison Brive
P de Glanville Bath, capt 12 S Glas Bourgoin
T Underwood Newcastle 11 D Venditti Brive
P Grayson Northampton 10 A Penaud Brive
A Gomarsall Wasps 9 P Carbonneau Brive
G Rowntree Leicester 1 C Califano Toulouse
M Regan Bristol 2 M Dal Maso Agen
J Leonard Harlequins 3 F Tournaire Narbonne
M Johnson Leicester 4 O Merle Montferrand
S Shaw Bristol 5 H Miorin Toulouse
L Dallaglio Wasps 6 A Benazzi Agen, capt
T Rodber Northampton 8 F Pelous Dax
R Hill Saracens 7 O Magne Dax
Referee: J Fleming (Scotland). Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC1).Reuse content