Once bitten, twice shy? Quite apart from the implications for holding on to their Six Nations title, so hard won in 2016 and 2017, England cannot afford to be as meek and mild in Paris this evening as they were in losing to Scotland a fortnight ago.
From the new captain, Owen Farrell, to their mostly unchanged pack of forwards, Les Rosbifs must be horseradish-hot from first to last on what could be a Yorkshire pudding of a pitch.
“France are the European version of the South Africans,” said England coach Eddie Jones, who so far has only known first in the championship. “They are big, they are physical and they want to hurt you.”
But what is England’s watchword after the 25-13 reverse in Edinburgh? Has all the pomp and confidence of 24 wins in their previous 25 games suddenly dissipated? While admitting he had “got tough” these past two weeks, and changed his team’s mindset in unspecified ways, Jones was keen not to overplay the sackcloth-and-ashes stuff. “After a loss you are always a little bit more emotional – that is the way life is,” the Aussie said. “Has it been extraordinary? I wouldn’t say so.”
The opening few minutes at teatime today will show and tell. By then, by the way, the Championship leaders Ireland’s match with Scotland will be over, and England will know precisely how their prospects of a record third straight title stand.
“A key position for any French team is the No 9,” said Jones, pictured, “and he [Maxime Machenaud] has been playing in a dinner suit. We want to put a bit of heat on him.”
The inclusion of Jamie George in place of the injured captain Dylan Hartley at hooker is the only alteration to England’s starting pack who were robbed of nine balls in rucks and mauls by the Scots. With two back-rowers in James Haskell and Sam Simmonds accompanied by the dynamic front-rowers Kyle Sinckler and Luke Cowan-Dickie on the bench, England look equipped to run everything and everywhere from the Champs Elysees to Euro Disney in the final 20 minutes – especially if Ireland’s result means they need a bonus point to keep the title chase going.
Farrell’s vice-captain and fellow Saracen, Mako Vunipola, was asked if the Stade de France pitch would stand up to the predicted heavy rain.
“It’s been quite good but, yeah, it tears up when the scrum goes down,” said Vunipola. The multi-talented loosehead prop was then invited to analyse the technique of his direct scrummaging opponent, Rabah Slimani, who is widely regarded as one of the world’s most menacing tightheads.
“You’d have to get [England’s tighthead] Dan Cole in to talk about that,” said Vunipola, with a grin cracking his craggy features.
A sloppy scrum may suit England, but stodgy conditions could be harmful in other ways. Having consigned Mike Brown to the replacements’ bench, England will want Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Jonny May to show their blinding pace in the back three – “they all run over ten [metres per second],” beamed Jones – with Watson’s outstanding footwork one of the few highlights in Scotland.
Of course, the mind boggles at what coverage England would be receiving if eight of their players had been dropped after a boozy night out in Edinburgh, as happened to France last month, or their star centre was banned for a homophobic comment, as the gargantuan Mathieu Bastareaud was for calling an Italian opponent a “f***ing faggot” in a European Cup match in January.
This was partially explained by Bastareaud to the disciplinary panel who gave him a three-week ban by saying he had heard English speakers at his club, Toulon, using the term in a non-specifically derogatory sense.
Bastareaud returned to France’s fold against Italy, in a team much changed to take account of the Edinburgh incidents, and the Toulon outside centre ran and offloaded in a manner that has obliged England to select their nearest available equivalent, Ben Te’o.
“I’m a big guy but I’m up against a bigger guy,” Te’o said of Bastareaud. “I watched him the other week and he was very destructive. We’ll have a job on our hands to stop him. Fingers crossed, I’ll have the opportunity to get in there.”