“It hasn’t been high on the agenda,” said Eddie Jones at the Jean Bouin stadium, home of the Stade Francais club in the west of Paris yesterday lunchtime, as he announced his team to face France tomorrow.
With these seven words, the Australian head coach of England shut down any discussion of Brexit, and while Jones could read a telephone book aloud and make it sound interesting, it was a profound relief to know we could concentrate on the delicious potential of this Six Nations opener and the rich rugby history of “Le Crunch” all around us.
A photo plastered on one bar showed France’s new head coach, Fabien Galthié, inset, grinning in wild delight in his playing days on a lap of honour with the Bouclier de Brennus, the trophy for his country’s much-coveted league title. On the cover of L’Equipe newspaper this week, there was Galthié the former scrum-half again, staring in bemusement – or possibly intense jealousy – at England’s hooker Brian Moore being shot up and out of a scrum at the Parc des Princes.
And as Jones waxed lyrical about his debutant full-back, George Furbank, the same Parc was visible behind his head, its concrete buttresses curving into the blue Parisian sky like fingers gouging at eyes – you know, the sort of stuff French forwards used to get up to in the days when this match was characterised in some parts of the press as “Froggies versus Les Rosbifs”.
As the memory clicked back to those big Parc clashes of the past, it felt counter-intuitive to take too literally Jones’ promise to the French of “brutal physicality”. The team Galthié played for against England in 1992 finished with two props sent off amid shrieking and crying and interlopers in the press box screaming “f*** the Queen” after the playing of the visitors’ national anthem. No one was using the word Brexit then, but something feral and, yes, “brutal” used to beat in those French breasts.
Since 1998 the venue has been the more clinical Stade de France, a larger but much less intimate place rightly described by Jones last week described as “unromantic”. So what is the true meaning of his latest posturing? Jones is also right to say rugby remains violent – just in a different way, as it features more punishing collisions and stamina and withering endurance than the version 30 years ago.
Jones, you suspect, was shining a light on the youth in the French team. In Oita in Japan last October, France’s now former lock forward Sebastian Vahaamahina was sent off for elbowing Wales’ Aaron Wainwright in the head and the chance of a World Cup semi-final for Les Bleus went with him.
The despicable attacks on retinas may have gone, but Jones must feel his team with a totem in the indefatigable Maro Itoje can find a tipping point in the temperament of the much-changed French.
For England’s part they must prove they can carry repeatedly and with force without the two Vunipola brothers, while Charlie Ewels, the Bath lock and captain, has a first crack at the Six Nations on his 13th Test appearance, alongside Itoje who will call the line-outs. Ewels knows enough about France from club and age-group meetings to warn yesterday of them feeding off the crowd if things go well.
Thirteen of England’s starters were regulars at the World Cup, which ended of course in an emphatic loss to South Africa. The French just happen to have two South African recruits in their second row and they could replicate some aspects of the Springbok power to which Owen Farrell’s men had no answer.
But there is also abundant potential in France’s back division from the outstanding scrum-half Antoine Dupont to the debutant Anthony Bouthier to encourage Francophiles who would actually relish a blue-jerseyed revival to reach for those dear old bon mots: French flair.
England’s squad left home for warm-weather training in Portugal nine days ago and arrived in Paris on Thursday, so they began their trip as EU members and will return on Monday with the exit deed done. If they also have a win in their luggage, a big tilt at a Grand Slam will be on.