With England’s status as Six Nations champions under threat, head coach Eddie Jones has reacted to the defeat by Scotland in the last round of matches by picking a team to blow France away with power and pace in Paris on Saturday.
Two stalwarts of the Jones era are missing from the run-on XV, with Dylan Hartley’s calf strain allowing vice-captain Owen Farrell to step up as starting skipper for the first time in his six-year England career, and Jamie George taking Hartley’s place at the heart of the front row, with Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie on the bench.
In other changes, Anthony Watson is preferred to the defensive kingpin Mike Brown at full-back, with Brown demoted to the replacements for the first time since Jones became the boss in December 2015. And the fit-again Elliot Daly resumes on the left wing, in the Wasp’s first game for almost three months after ankle and calf injuries. In the midfield, Ben Te’o has been restored ahead of Jonathan Joseph with instructions from Jones to “get a shot early” on France’s “icon player”, the 120- kilo Toulon centre Mathieu Bastareaud.
Jones, pictured, has ignored some critics by sticking with the back five of the pack, despite their failure to deny the Scots quick ball in the 25-13 loss in Edinburgh, although Sam Simmonds and James Haskell return on the bench, and are joined there by Harlequins’ tighthead Kyle Sinckler.
Championship leaders Ireland will kick off this Saturday’s action when they host Scotland in Dublin, and if the Irish bag a bonus-point win, England will be forced to match that result to keep the Six Nations title race alive into the final round on 17 March.
“I don’t even know where Ireland are playing,” insisted Jones, whose debut Six Nations with England brought a Grand Slam completed in Paris in March 2016, before the Championship was retained last year. “All I am concerned about is winning this game. As long as we are brutal and ruthless at the gainline, we will have too much for the French.
“I think [Mike] Brown is close to being the best defensive full-back in the world, with Leigh Halfpenny. But for this game, we have decided to go with a more attacking back three and Anthony fills that bill with Elliot. We didn’t get the mindset of the players right for the last game, so we’ve done more work on that area than we did for Scotland.”
Hartley, who was said to be wearing a protective sock on his calf, travelled with the England team to Paris yesterday, but Jones was uninterested in speculating on selection beyond this weekend.
France lost narrowly to Ireland in Paris and Scotland in Edinburgh before beating Italy when the recalled Bastareaud was man of the match, and Jones said: “He’s a bit of an icon for them. He’s been built up as the guy who’s going to regenerate French rugby. So it’s important that, early in the game, we let him know he’s going to have a tough day in the office. The French play fairly direct and Ben Te’o will enjoy getting a shot on Bastareaud early.”