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France preview: Unpredictability and set piece rocks

22 February 2013

  • Lancaster, Rowntree, Launchbury, B. Youngs, Lawes, Parling and Barritt preview France
  • "There’s never a weak French pack, their set-piece is still a rock" – Rowntree

France arrive at Twickenham with two losses in their opening two RBS 6 Nations games, the first time they’ve suffered that ignominious record in a Five or Six Nations since 1982. But it’s not since 2001 that a French side has lost three matches in a single Championship, when Scotland (16-6) and Italy 30-19) were their only victims.

Fired-up by intense criticism at home after defeats to Italy in Rome and to Wales – who had lost their last eight Tests – in Paris and emboldened by a raft of personnel and positional changes, no one in the England camp is underestimating Philippe Saint Andre’s side.

Not so long ago an England side which had lost to Australia and South Africa romped to a record victory over world champions New Zealand, and, speaking from that experience, centre Brad Barritt said you can’t always trust the form book.

“In rugby two losses does not make you a bad team. They’ll be rallied by the fact that they beat England in the world cup two years ago and reached the final too,” said the Saracens man.

France dangerman Wesley Fofana runs with the ball against Italy

Photo: Getty Images

Graham Rowntree has beefed up his pack with Northampton Saints pair Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, but still thinks physical France will be relishing the chance to get stuck into a relatively inexperienced England team with just 277 caps.

The England Forwards Coach said: “France will be licking their lips – they’ll look at the age-profile and caps of our team and will fancy their chances. They’ve openly said that a win at Twickenham would be their Grand Slam if they win at the weekend.”

Lawes will make his first RBS 6 Nations start on Saturday. It will be his first time at No.6 and first start during Lancaster’s 14-game tenure and says France’s unpredictability makes them a difficult opponent to face.

“You never really know what you’re going to get with the French, being beaten by Italy at the start is an example of that,” said the 23-year-old. “But they’ve put such a big team out, they’re going to come and be so physical, we need to better them.”

But Barritt, who organises England’s backline defence, believes that France’s ability to startle with broken-field running from turnover over ball comes from the opposition providing them with unstructured opportunities. Against England’s “white wall” defence Barritt does not believe France will be given those same opportunities.

“Ultimately, unpredictability comes from you being unstructured,” he said. “We’ll look to play with tempo, with structure and to be as clinical as we can to ensure they don’t have that air of the unexpected.”

Despite their losses, France’s set piece has performed well, only losing four of 25 line outs and two of 17 scrums, and the England camp is united in their believe that it will be a determining the outcome on Saturday.

England lock Geoff Parling carries strongly against France in Paris last year

Photo: Getty Images

Rowntree sees the French set-piece as the pillar around which they build their game, and can’t ever recall a fragile one: “There’s never a weak French pack, regardless of their disappointments in the Championship their set-piece is still a rock. Line out, driving line out, scrum, crikey they’ve got some massive men and we’ve got our hands full at the weekend.”

And Geoff Parling, Rowntree’s line out general on the field, is aware of the emotional energy the visitors draw from all the game’s restarts.

“We know the set piece is going to be a huge part of the game,” said the Leicester Tigers man. “In France they pride themselves on having a good scrum and a good mauling game, they want to get the ball and chuck it about in attack. It’s a big contest for us forwards this weekend.”

Should unbeaten England intend to remain on course for a first Grand Slam in 10 years, countering unpredictability with a structured game plan and wielding the sledgehammers to smash the French rocks is the order of the day.