France determined to crown resurgence against wounded England in Six Nations finale

Fabien Galthie’s side can secure their first grand slam and Six Nations title in 12 years in front of an expectant Stade de France

Harry Latham-Coyle
Friday 18 March 2022 14:13
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<p>France celebrate at full time following their Six Nations win in Cardiff </p>

France celebrate at full time following their Six Nations win in Cardiff

Weekends like this do not come too often. It is 12 years since France last secured the grand chelem, or a Six Nations title of any kind for that matter, a period of unprecedented modern mediocrity through mutinies, selection squabbles and all too regular regime changes.

Now, it is time for proof that Les Bleus are back. On the strength of their youth structures, the reestablishment of closer ties between the union and the clubs and a golden generation, they have built again under a fine coaching staff towards the ultimate, alluring goal of a home World Cup.

Once more speaking the language of love after their rugby side’s resurgence, the Stade de France should be febrile with England in town. Match tickets are the hottest Saturday night reservation in Paris, with the public expecting a restoration of the French monarchy atop the men’s Six Nations as the next step towards France 2023. To conclude “Super Saturday”, crunch time.

“We are where we wanted to be,” said the French head coach Fabien Galthie on Thursday. “But you have to stay humble, stay in your place, there is a game to play. We did everything to be in this position. We are very focused.”

Hoping to play the role of Paris party poopers are a wounded England, who must go again after the exertions of an encouraging, though ultimately futile, 14-man effort against Ireland. Eddie Jones, in consultation with his players, tweaked the training schedule to lessen the midweek load to recuperate minds and bodies.

France can secure their first grand slam since 2010 on Saturday evening

They pray they can prey on the novelty of the stage for the potential grand slammers, but there is a sense that this is a different French side than the ones accused of mental fragility in the past. While all of the 2010 winners are long gone, Galthie, team manager Raphael Ibanez and scrum coach William Servat can all impart their knowledge having completed a clean sweep of players, and Shaun Edwards brings oodles of experience from Wales, too. There is also the success of their Toulousain spine to draw upon, with nine of the matchday squad drawn from the European and French champions, and there are a handful of Under-20 world champions, too.

Jones has taken great pains during this tournament to point to the inexperience of England, the callowness of his core, but as a reason for their toils it does not necessarily stand, particularly when compared to a not dissimilarly unseasoned French side and their success. In the past six months Fabien Galthie has embedded a new young lineout caller in Cameron Woki (somewhat playing out of position), and a goal-kicking full-back in Melvyn Jaminet who was playing second-tier rugby until last summer.

Ellis Genge (left) embraces Jamie George after forcing a penalty against Ireland at Twickenham

The French 8-9-10 trio are all 25 or under, and even without Owen Farrell, Tom Curry, Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi and others, England’s matchday 23 includes seven individuals with more than 50 caps; France, in the form of the supreme Gael Fickou, have just one.

England may only be competing for minor placings but there is plenty riding on this, with Jones dismissing the idea that it was a free shot. While their head coach, as ever, has insisted he and his side are focused on themselves, England were shown a blueprint of sorts on how to combat France by Wales. The suggestion is that they will play similarly, kicking often, and targeting Woki at the lineout.

Kyle Sinckler has cleared the return-to-play protocols but has barely trained in the last two weeks, so Will Stuart starts opposite Ellis Genge; to dismantle another scrum they will have to detonate the twin cooling towers of Uini Atonio and Paul Willemse that form a colossal tighthead scrummaging power station, no easy task. With Romain Taofifenua back from Covid, France revert to their preferred 6-2 bench split with a new tight five ready.

For England, the selection of Ben Youngs at scrum-half is made with a clear look to the heavens, likewise Freddie Steward’s shifting to the wing to accommodate a second full-back specialist in George Furbank. Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe and captain Courtney Lawes provide no shortage of lineout leaping as England brace for aerial battle.

“France are the highest and the longest kicking team in the world, so we need to counter that,” Jones explained. “We have got to make sure we control that battle of meterage, which it’s going to be. There is a meterage on the floor around the ruck and then there’s a battle for the meterage through the air. We have got to win both those battles to win the game. We are quite clear we know what we have to do, and now we have to be good enough to do it.”

However well they executed their plan, Wales still fell short. It would be foolish to suggest that the opulence of the French attacking texture will clash quite as it did in Cardiff, and then there is England’s attack, so short of potency and now up against an Edwards defence that has stalled many a more symphonious offensive unit over the years.

Of course, France must contend with the pressure and the weight of expectation but they confront a beaten and bruised England side with plenty of tough questions to answer. Perhaps that will breed danger but there is a feeling this might well be France’s moment – and for a side of such potential, it could be the first of many.

Ireland vs Scotland

Blair Kinghorn is set to star for Scotland in Dublin

Hoping to ensure that France do have to win to secure the championship will be Ireland. Andy Farrell’s side haven’t quite found top fluency in their last two games, despite enjoying a numerical advantage, but this may offer a chance to make a compelling title case and put doubt in French heads.

Gregor Townsend has surprised with the selection of Blair Kinghorn at fly-half. Finn Russell may not have enjoyed a particularly good tournament but to hand the keys to Kinghorn, a player still transitioning into a senior 10 despite a season of promise, ahead of such an occasion is a massive gamble. Get their performance right, as they did in Paris in the final game of last year’s tournament, and Scotland are perfectly capable of beating Ireland. But get it wrong and it could be very, very one-sided.

Wales vs Italy

Alun Wyn Jones will make his 150th appearance for Wales against Italy

Wayne Pivac had to bat away a question this week suggesting that Alun Wyn Jones’s selection was a marketing ploy from the under-fire Welsh Rugby Union. The insinuation was that lock’s 150th cap would drive ticket sales after a disappointing Friday night crowd last week and plenty of criticism over extortionate pricing and unkind scheduling.

While the immediate starting recall for Jones, again back ahead of schedule from injury, is cruel on Will Rowlands after an outstanding tournament, rotation for the fixture against Italy would perhaps not be seen so unfavourably at any other time. And the second row probably deserves a moment in the Cardiff sun, having surpassed Richie McCaw behind closed doors during the pandemic. He reaches a figure that no other man has achieved before.

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