Prep in England’s step
We return to the scene of one of the most dramatic matches ever witnessed in the Northern Hemisphere as England and France clash again after their mesmerising 55-35 encounter at Twickenham last March.
While this match is unlikely to live up to that drama, there is still very much plenty to play for on both sides.
With greater playing resources than their fellow European nations, the pressure is on England and France to select the best 31 players capable of delivering a ‘home’ victory at the World Cup.
France have been in a state of disarray for some time now and Philippe Saint-Andre’s tenure has been nothing short of disastrous, with a 40% win rate and over 80 players used during in his time in charge.
In fairness to the beleaguered former French winger he did at least set about cutting the wheat from chaff early doors, naming just 36 players in his extended training squad as early as May.
Only five more players need to be cut but nobody in the French squad will take their place for granted after Saint-Andre omitted recent regulars Camille Lopez and Teddy Thomas as well as the three Maximes – Médard, Mermoz and Machenaud – from that initial squad.
Stuart Lancaster, too, has begun the culling process in earnest, making some big decisions in axing 11 players from his extended squad of 50 last week. He then took the unusual step of naming his match 23 for this one on Monday in order to give those involved as much time as possible to prepare.
A timely reminder of just what’s at stake for those on the periphery. With just two games before Lancaster must reduce his squad by a further eight, time is running out for players to make an impression.
There are three new caps in his starting XV and it goes without saying that this trio – flanker Calum Clarke and centres Sam Burgess and Harry Slade – alongside the likes of prop Kieran Brookes, must make the most of their opportunity.
Elsewhere Ben Morgan makes a welcome return after his broken leg to start at No 8, while Exeter’s Luke Cowan-Dickie will hope to impress from the bench.
Much of the focus will be on Rugby League convert Burgess, who will be grateful for not having to face the unique challenge of Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana after 11 of France’s front-liners did not make the short hop across the English Channel.
Captain Thierry Dusautoir sits this one out through injury, providing Louis Picamoles, amongst others, with the chance to remind everyone what he is capable of.
France have appeared rudderless and without a gameplan, yet perhaps this has been their plan all along: to trick rivals into complacency. Remember they looked a shambles at the ’99 and 2011 finals, too, but still made it all the way through to the decider on each occasion.
However, the current incarnation still look a level below England at this stage in preparations and expect Lancaster’s business-like approach to get the job done here. England are available at 5/6 (-9) on the handicap.Add to betslip
The match kicks off at 8pm on Saturday, August 15th at Twickenham.