England coach Stuart Lancaster insists the obituary of French rugby is being written far too hastily as the RBS Six Nations rivals experience contrasting fortunes ahead of Saturday’s clash at Twickenham.
While an elusive Grand Slam is the target for an England side that has recorded three successive, high-quality victories, France have once more been reduced to a rabble.
Defeats by Italy and Wales have condemned the pre-tournament favourites to their worst start to a Six Nations with coach Philippe Saint-Andre under attack over selection and tactics. In his defence, Saint-Andre has complained that the continual influx of overseas players into the financially-lucrative Top 14 is now having repercussions for the national team.
Player release from the all-powerful French clubs also works against Saint-Andre, who must cast envious glances at the agreement struck by the Rugby Football Union and Aviva Premiership. But while Lancaster refuses to reassess the strength of France on the basis of two losses, he insists the English model is starting to produce results.
“It’s a bit early to say that France are suffering,” he said. “It’s far too early on the back of two games to say France aren’t a good side. They beat Australia 33-6 in the autumn and Australia then beat us. While we’ll take something out of their first two Six Nations games, we’ll also take something out of those autumn internationals and make sure we’re ready for them. If you go through the players who will play against us and when you see them in their club colours they are good, experienced, tough, big, physical players. So it ain’t going to be easy.
“But the club-country agreement and the English Qualified Players scheme we have are both really positive initiatives. They were brought in when I started in 2008 and I think we’re seeing the fruits of that coming through now, particularly the English Qualified Player scheme. We’ve got a majority of English-based players in the Premiership which is critical for me. We have key English players playing in key positions like fly-half.
“The quality of the younger players coming through now is also the highest I’ve known it.”
France’s most recent implosion prior to this year’s Six Nations was during the 2011 World Cup when they crawled out of the group stage despite their players being in open dispute with coach Marc Lievremont. Yet they managed to reach the final, which they controlled only to be edged by New Zealand.
“You definitely get a backs-against-the-wall mentality when a team is in the position where they are. You want to prove a point,” Lancaster said. “In the autumn we’d lost two games to Australia and South Africa. We got the response we wanted against New Zealand. France are a dangerous side, full stop.”