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Six Nations - France v England preview

It's Six Nations' time when the cream of European rugby do battle (without the threat of being hammered by southern hemisphere opponents :). The non-football media in England will hit fever pitch in the next 48 hours before England step out onto the Stade de France to launch their campaign. Will eternal optimism be sustained or crushed back into doom and gloom on Saturday night?

Step in rugby expert Russ Petty, @rpetty80, and his detailed pre-game analysis of the first round's headline match. You can read more of his sterling work, including previews of this weekend's other matches via his blog.


France vs England

There is a trend that the French do well in the tournament straight after a Lions tour – they won in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010, with Grand Slams in three of them.

They did only win two of their 11 games in 2013 though and the problems concerning fitness, and number of ‘foreigners’ in key playing positions in the Top 14 remain.

Since last year’s 6Nations they have lost four games to New Zealand (three away), one against South Africa and beaten Tonga. There is a case that their NH rivals would have achieved similar results themselves from those fixtures but it still means they go into this tournament with little momentum.

Saint-Andre has been pretty honest in his assessment of France’s problems – saying that in 2012 there was a clear order of Parra / Machenaud at 9 and Michalak at 10. Those three players were all playing well and were first choice at their clubs at the time too. Injuries and loss of form have changed all that for 2014 so he has been forced to look elsewhere.

He had seemed to have settled on 29 year old Castres fly-half Remi Tales (five caps) but injury has meant a decision had to be made between Plisson (0 caps), Trinh-Duc (48 caps and left out of the earlier squads) or Doussain (five caps).

The French coach also brought up the point that previous teams had player such as Bonnaire and Nallet that brought a steel and raised standards of team mates. A frustration about inefficiency in attack and coughing up ‘easy’ points in defence was also discussed.

The team with the fewest errors has won this fixture in the last six meetings so stopping those soft points will likely be a factor again.

In 2013, England won with 11 turnovers to 18 by France. In 2012 it was 14 to 16, 2011 16 to 21 and 2009 10 to 21.

For the French wins in 2011 (World Cup) it was 11 turnovers to 22 and in 2010 – 12 to 16.

The absence of Dusautoir also has to be considered. He has made 70 tackles in his last six games against England, only missing two (97% success rate). In that period, the rest of the French team made 510 tackles, missing 56 (90%).

Antoine Burban is having a very good season for Stade Francais and put in a highlight reel try-saving tackle a few weeks ago against USAP. He doesn’t have 54 caps though nor the leadership and experience of the missing Toulouse flanker.

It also means a different captain and if Pape’s impression of a walking yellow card, (six cards in 16 games for Stade Francais this season) continues – then the team could struggle.

France may have had a poor 2013, but number 8 Picamoles put down some impressive individual statistics. He made an average of 13 carries for 60m and beat three defenders. Against England it was 15 carries for 73m, with four defenders beaten, so a little higher than the year average.

Looking at his performances against Saracens this season in the Heineken Cup, he carried 30 times for 67m, beat six defenders in just 112 minutes. There may also be a psychological edge in that the Toulouse forwards did dominate their opposition in those games. Stacking the 23 man squad with as many forwards as possible, does suggest the hosts will be looking to emulate that power game again.

There is some evidence that England will need to control the first half if they want to win this fixture. In the last 10 meetings, they have won when they kept France to 10 or fewer points in the first half and lost when didn’t. England have only won five of 97 games vs France when they have conceded 10 or more points before halftime and only have the two victories in France when behind at the break.

The question over creativity persists with England, as it did in the 2012 and 2013 tournaments. The options of Wade, Yarde, Nowell, May or Watson on the wings are exciting however they will still need to be supplied with decent ball. Each are capable of scoring individual tries – which is a bonus, but there will have to be significant changes elsewhere in attack if they are to be given a fair chance.

Flood’s decision to move to France means that Farrell is now the senior 10 in the squad – with 19 caps. Ford has zero, Myler one. It does mirror the situation with the French team, except they needed to call up their equivalent to Flood, Trinh-Duc.

In the Feb 2013 game, the difference proved to be Tuilagi – who won a personal duel with Bastareaud and carried for 62m, beat five defenders and scored the crucial try on 54 minutes. His injury means England have needed to look elsewhere for someone to punch holes in a defence. Billy Vunipola carried 18 times and Ben Morgan seven against New Zealand and both will have an important role in Paris.

There will be plenty of optimism about England’s attack and Lancaster has talked about needing tempo against the big French pack. However, I’m leaning towards another campaign where the visitors prove tough to beat, solid in the set-piece and accumulate points via Farrell’s boot.

In the last 10 6Nations games, the time of England’s first try has been an average of 41 minutes. They have failed to score a try in the previous 186 minutes in the competition and backing time of their first try at second half or no try will be a tactic throughout these rounds, rather than expecting fireworks.

England starting with two tough away games and that old fave of French unpredictability have put me off their tournament prices of 3.5 and 3.75 respectively.

Was planning to treat this contest in the same fashion as a Top 14 game, which means backing unders on tries, no try, a drop goal and covering the draw at either HT or FT at 7.5. The poor quality Paris pitch, France likely loading the bench with forwards and a question over how creative England can be do tend to reinforce that view.

Have backed top French try scorer - Picamoles 11.0, top English try scorer – B Vunipola 17.0 and Nowell 13.0 (perhaps worth waiting for team news before getting involved with Nowell’s House Party, but I like that price and also 51.0 e/w for tournament try scorer).


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