France vs. England: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Six Nations Clash
You could argue it’s a shame France meet England at the very start of this year’s Six Nations.
Two of the championship’s heavyweights will be in the mix for the title come the end of the 2014 edition, so it would have been mouthwatering to see them play a decider rather than on the opening weekend.
But it still gets the pulse racing. Le Crunch is always a fixture to savour.
This season, England are looking to banish memories of a Grand Slam dream smashed to smithereens at the end of the 2013 competition, while France will be keen to make amends for their wooden spoon-winning season of last year.
Here is where the game will be won and lost.
1. The Scrum
England’s pack has matured into a unit that can give any forward group a tough going-over at scrum time.
But at home in the cauldron of the Stade de France, the French front row will be fired up to take it to Les Rosbifs.
Whoever packs down on England’s loose-head side will need to get the edge under the new engagement laws and ensure England are on the front foot, or the French could smell blood and destabilise the scrum as a source of possession for Stuart Lancaster’s men.
2. The Midfield
With Luther Burrell set to make his debut alongside Billy Twelvetrees, who is relatively inexperienced at this level himself, the centre battle will be an intriguing one.
Against them will be the world’s best No. 12 in the shape of Wesley Fofana, who scored a wonderful solo try at Twickenham last season and has looked in good touch for Clermont Auvergne so far this campaign.
Alongside Fofana the rapier is Mathieu Bastareaud the broadsword, the human battering ram who will test the Red Rose pair’s defensive mettle.
If Burrell and Twelvetrees can shackle this duo, they will go a long way to limiting France’s attacking threat.
3. The Back Row Battle
England look to have struck a better balance in their back row trio with the emergence of Billy Vunipola as a genuine ball-carrying threat while Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood do the breakdown work and link play.
France are missing their talisman Thierry Dusautoir from their back row, and England will sense their chance to gain the upper hand in terms of yards gained and securing the advantage on the floor.
But they will have to fight for it. In Louis Picamoles, France have one of the bulkiest, most belligerent ball carrying No. 8s in world rugby and in Yannick Nyanga, one of the masters of the dark arts.
It will be some confrontation.
4. Nowell vs Huget
It has been said—not least by Stuart Lancaster—that England new boy Jack Nowell has been the most "involved" wing in the Aviva Premiership this season and that he has beaten more defenders than anyone else.
His selection over Chris Ashton is certainly merited given his form and the dip of Ashton's.
He will need to maintain that same work-rate if he is to match the ever-busy Yoann Huget, who likes nothing more than haring in off his touchline to get into the mix.
The bigger man from Toulouse is a potent weapon for France and one Nowell will need to counter.
5. The Lineout
Courtney Lawes proved he could run the show at the lineout in the autumn internationals.
He needs to transfer that form into the Six Nations and it will be a huge test in the white-hot Parisian atmosphere.
He will be up against Pascal Pape, who has the double duty of providing lineout ball to his backs and acting as stand-in skipper.
If Lawes and his mate Joe Launchbury can upset Pape’s supply line, it will be a major step towards victory for England.