There are few more intimidating locations in world rugby than the Stade De France, and few more intimidating fixtures for débutantes than Le Crunch.
And yet, two of Stuart Lancaster’s youngsters will be making their débuts against France on Saturday. Jack Nowell and Luther Burrell will be part of an inexperienced back line that has been put together in the wake of injuries to Marland Yarde, Christian Wade and Manu Tuilagi. They are joined by Jonny May – one cap – and Billy Twelvetrees – five caps. It’s a bold move but, to Lancaster’s credit, he has picked on form (as he has always claimed he would) and all four players have the talent and form to at least challenge their French counterparts. England expects creativity from their backs, and Burrell/Twelvetress *could* be the centre pairing to ignite that spark.
There are only four survivors (Dickson and Morgan are on the bench this time round) from the England team that won 24-22 in Paris two years ago, so it would be an understatement to say that this England team are unfamiliar with playing high quality opponents away from their Twickenham HQ. We all saw what happened in Cardiff last year.
Recent history is very much in England’s favour – they’ve won six of their last eight against France, and three of the last four in Paris. This doesn’t change the fact that the French are still notoriously difficult to beat at home, and the reality is that this is a match between a fresh-faced England side and a French team hungry to avenge 2013’s farcical showing in the Six Nations.
However, history hasn’t been too unkind to the French. The past four occasions in which the French have won it all – in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 – were the years immediately following a Lions tour. Les Rosbifs contributed a fair share of Lions in 2013, and many have since been hobbled by injury.
No such worries for France who, despite losing captain Thierry Dusautoir, possess a frighteningly physical squad – led by the intimidating Pascal Pape and featuring star players Wesley Fofana, Louis Picamoles, Mathieu Bastareaud and Maxime Medard.
The French side is supremely dynamic and subsequently Phillipe Saint-André has opted for a more adventurous team, featuring a half back pairing with one cap between them. France Circa 2014 are capable of playing both a powerhouse style or an expansive game, and Saint-André’s selection of Jean-Marc Doussain and Jules Plisson – at scrum and fly half, respectively – suggests the latter may be on show.
But no preview of the Six Nations would be complete without the unearthing of the oft-repeated cliché – that the French are unquestionably the most enigmatic team this year. No one will be sure what French team will show up until 5pm on Saturday.