Praise can make you weak. Eddie Jones threw that comment at Ireland last week as a warning about living up to expectations.
Those expectations were then shattered by Jones’ England as they smashed the Irish in Dublin to kick off the Six Nations.
Naturally, praise has been showered on England for producing their best performance since 2012, when they thrashed New Zealand 38-21 at Twickenham.
Having been hailed far and wide for the remarkable all-round triumph, it is England’s turn to cope with all the pats on the back, to switch from underdog to favourite as France rock up at Twickenham today. “By Sunday we’ll be at our best,” Jones promises.
To prove all the praise has had no effect won’t be easy, especially when England are not in hostile territory but back in the comforts of home.
“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” hooker Jamie George says. “We must realise that we can’t just rest on that win, believing that because we’ve produced one good performance we’ll be winning the World Cup. We need to build on this.”
The good news – and bad news – is the next opponents are France. France should have sunk Wales last week in the rain in Paris, but Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez missed 13 points off the tee, and Yoann Huget and Sebastian Vahaamahina gave away two converted tries. Wales, without really firing a shot, won by five points.
Instead of only replacing injured backs Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard, and prop Uini Atonio, and showing some faith, coach Jacques Brunel has prolonged the turmoil the team can’t escape by tearing it apart and asking new combinations to hit the ground running in a stadium where France have not won in 12 years.
He’s brought Geoffrey Daymourou and Mathieu Bastareaud into the centres, apparently to counter the considerable threat of Manu Tuilagi. They are the only survivors of the backline which beat England last year in Paris. But two more centres are on the wings in Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud. Meanwhile, Huget has been moved to full-back, where the wing hasn’t started for France in almost six years.
Centre Romain Ntamack and lock Paul Willemse, who made their debuts against Wales, have been demoted to the bench. The French pack was huge and surprisingly mobile against Wales but flanker Yacouba Camara has been given his first cap since the 2018 Six Nations, and lock Felix Lambey and tighthead prop Demba Bamba will make their first starts. Bamba will be marking Mako Vunipola. Of Bamba, Brunel says: “He’s come up against a few good players.” But not Vunipola, who almost subdued the Ireland pack on his own.
If any rescuing is required, France’s reserves offer 25 caps of experience in total. Toulouse prop Dorian Aldegheri and full-back Thomas Ramos are uncapped, and four others have one cap each.
“I expect them to bring their enthusiasm late in the game,” Brunel said.