CHRIS Robshaw has challenged England to continue the reconstruction of ‘Fortress Twickenham’ by making their headquarters as inhospitable as possible for France in today’s RBS Six Nations showdown.
England were unbeaten at home for 22 consecutive Test matches over four years in the build-up to their 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph and Robshaw wants Twickenham to be a feared venue once again.
France are already in a state of heightened anxiety after making their worst start to a Five or Six Nations championship for 31 years, with defeats to Italy and Wales. England, in buoyant mood after three straight wins, have picked a side designed to match the French power, to yield no ground on ‘the old cabbage patch’ – and Robshaw will be at the forefront of a potentially seismic physical encounter.
“That’s what you want to happen. You want your home ground to be that fortress that teams don’t want to come and play in,” Robshaw said. “If you look back to the build-up to 2003, this place was a real fortress and teams coming here knew they were only going to get a loss. We are not at that stage yet but, fingers crossed, we can get to that.
“This is the next challenge on our journey. They will come here wanting to prove a couple of points. The first 20 minutes will be very physical and very intense. We are in a good place. It is about keeping your composure and getting the right result.”
England are a long way from making Twickenham – which was built on the site of a market garden in 1907 – that fortress of old. They have won four and lost three at home under Stuart Lancaster. But their last two outings ended with handsome victories over New Zealand and Scotland before they secured a 12-6 win in Dublin a week ago last Sunday.
England have recalled abrasive hooker Dylan Hartley, wrecking-ball centre Manu Tuilagi and tackling machine Courtney Lawes, who declared his intent to put the French ‘bully boys’ in their place. After successive defeats confirmed France’s worst run of results in the championship since 1958, head coach Philippe Saint Andre finally decided to pair Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud in a powerful midfield and recall the often majestic scrum-half general Morgan Parra.
“They are a wounded animal. They are a very proud nation and they enjoy playing against the English. It is a big one at Twickenham,” said England assistant coach Mike Catt. “As a team we have grown. We showed a lot of maturity in that Ireland win. They will probably throw something at us that we haven’t experienced before. It is about how quickly we adapt to it and the players have done exceptionally well on the field, making those decisions and coming up with solutions. It is massively exciting and a massive learning step.”
Thierry Dusautoir has told his France team-mates to define their careers by upstaging England at Twickenham. Abysmal defeats to Italy and Wales have seen Les Bleus endure their worst start to the championship since 1982 and they are heavy underdogs to fall before England’s Grand Slam march. The statistics make uncomfortable reading for the pre-tournament favourites, who have won just one of their last five away matches in the Six Nations and have triumphed just once at Twickenham since 1997.
The odds may be stacked against them, but captain Dusautoir believes their fortunes may be about to change. “I want us to play with freedom, with a lack of pressure,” the Toulouse flanker said. “We have a healthy fear. I’m not really speaking of fear, more excitement. Twickenham is a temple of rugby. Very few French players know what it’s like to win here.
“It would be great to join that group. We’ve always had the ability to raise our game for ‘Le Crunch’. This is a match that can define your career. I have complete confidence in this team. I hope to be talking tomorrow about why the French team is a paradox.
“The most important thing is that we expect to win tomorrow. The most important pressure is the pressure that we can put on our shoulders. We are going to pay attention to our team, to what we have prepared for this game and that will be enough.”
France brushed aside England in the quarter-finals of the 2011 World Cup en route to an unlikely appearance in the final, but Dusautoir refuses to draw parallels. “For sure I hope it will be the same result. But it’s a new team, it’s totally different, it’s a young team,” he said. “Maybe at the World Cup we had more experience and we knew how difficult it was to be in this kind of situation. Maybe right now it’s different, that’s why we are focused on us and play the best rugby we can tomorrow.
“We have to be really, really good because the English team is very impressive.”