Grand Slam glory beckons France
March 19, 2010
Marc Lievremont's side stand on the verge of the Six Nations title and a ninth Championship clean sweep © Getty Images
Grand Slam glory is up for grabs in Paris on Saturday night when France play host to England at the Stade de France in the latest staging of Le Crunch.
France could have the Six Nations title in the bag come kick off if Ireland fail to beat Scotland in emphatic fashion at Croke Park but the prospect of a ninth Championship clean sweep, and first since 2004, should prove more than enough incentive against their fierce cross-Channel rivals.
Marc Lievremont's side have set the standard in this year's battle for northern hemisphere supremacy with a balance of power and flair that has already accounted for Scotland, Wales, Ireland and most recently Italy. As the most impressive side in the Championship mix, no one could deny their claim to the title or begrudge them their Grand Slam but in England they face a side long overdue a strong performance and well aware of how to upset Les Bleus at home, having won in Paris on their last two visits in the 2008 Six Nations and the 2007 World Cup semi-final. Then there is last year's demolition job at Twickenham, although England have failed to reach those heights since.
Martin Johnson's side enter the clash having seen their Championship hopes scuppered at the hands of Ireland and Scotland but a second place finish is still a possibility should they upset the hosts and the result in Dublin go their way. But in truth such a scenario would still not provide enough gloss to disguise what has been an immensely disappointing campaign. England have not wanted for effort or muscle but have been painfully lacking in terms of creativity with their shortcomings all the more glaring when viewed next to France's irresistible ability to conjure opportunities seemingly at will.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Lievremont has opted to tweak the side that dispatched Italy in style with centre David Marty cast to the bench despite his brace of tries last weekend. But in a further example of the enviable strength in depth available to him, the significant presence of Mathieu Bastareaud returns to the line-up. The powerful and deceptively quick 21-year-old is the only change and his latest appearance coincides with his nomination for Player of the Championship earlier this week.
He is joined on that shortlist by three of his team-mates who arguably have stronger claims to the honour having spearheaded France's charge to the title. Skipper Thierry Dusautoir's work-rate is legendary but he has had to play second fiddle to his back row colleague Imanol Harinordoquy who is currently playing some of the best rugby of his career. However, it is scrum-half Morgan Parra who has attracted the most plaudits with the Clermont No.9 often the driving force behind the French. The 21-year-old and his halfback partner, the 23-year-old Francois Trinh-Duc, have repaid the faith shown in them and in doing so helped to silence those who had questioned Lievremont's thinking.
Johnson has also been loyal but to a group of players who have consistently under-performed. Where Lievremont has been bold and brave, his England counterpart has refused to gamble on youth or inexperience with a fear of failure seemingly hindering the side's development. However, England fans desperate for an injection of fresh talent were handed a lifeline this week with injuries and lack of form finally forcing Johnson's hand.
Johnson's stubbornness previously knew no bounds when it came to fly-half Jonny Wilkinson but he has finally relented with the No.10 shirt passing to Toby Flood in one of six changes to the side that shared the very few spoils with the Scots. Wilkinson is not too accustomed to being dropped - this being only the third time he has been stripped of the starting No.10 berth - and had it not been for a knock to the head suffered at Murrayfield he may well have retained his spot such is Johnson's unwavering stance. Instead, Flood has been charged with breathing life into a backline that has failed to get out of second gear this year.
But there is renewed hope with Ben Foden granted a start at fullback and the prolific Chris Ashton handed his debut on the wing. In addition, veteran Mike Tindall returns at outside centre but his task will not so much be to provide a creative outlet - rather shackle Bastareaud. The creative duties have long rested with fellow centre Riki Flutey but he has repeatedly failed to find the form that catapulted him into the Lions mix last year and time is running out. Both may find a more than willing ally in Ashton who has scored 19 tries in 25 games for Northampton but just one on Saturday night might be enough to signal a turnaround in attacking fortunes.
The pack has held their own so far in the Championship but that no longer appears enough with the axe falling on James Haskell in favour of Lewis Moody with Joe Worsley moving to blindside. Simon Shaw reclaims his place in the second row from Louis Deacon after missing the Scotland game through injury. Captain Steve Borthwick, another to have benefitted from Johnson's unwavering support, was forced out of the game on Friday having failed to recover from a long-standing knee injury. As a result Johnson was granted yet more priceless room for manoeuvre when it comes to both the second-row and leadership. Louis Deacon comes in at lock with Tom Palmer joining the replacements with Moody handed the honour of leading his country for the first time.
Moody's energy and dynamism will ensure a different kind of leadership than that offered by Borthwick the high-profile fixture offers the Bath-bound flanker a great opportunity to stake a claim for the role full-time. A member of England's 'leadership group' he has only just reclaimed his place in the starting line-up having started on the bench against the Scots. A typical busy performance, no matter the result, could persuade Johnson to hand the tenacious and eloquent Moody the captaincy on a permanent basis.
With the Championship all but secured, the Grand Slam is France's for the taking but that pressure may be England's greatest weapon. Regardless, the visitors will need to produce more than they have shown to date if they are to capitalise on any mental weakness on the part of France. A change in personnel could prove the key for England but it must be accompanied by a change in mindset and sadly that may be as long in coming as the acknowledgement that they do not have the right tools for the job.
France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); M Andreu (Castres), M Bastareaud (Stade Francais), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), A Palisson (Brive); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Parra (Clermont Auvergne); T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), W Servat (Toulouse), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Racing Metro), J Pierre (Clermont Auvergne) T Dusautoir (Toulouse, captain), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz)
Replacements: D Szarzewski (Stade Francais), J-B Poux (Toulouse), S Chabal (Racing Metro), A Lapandry (Clermont Auvergne), D Yachvili (Biarritz), D Marty (Perpignan), J Malzieu (Clermont Auvergne)
England: B Foden (Northampton); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Flutey (Brive), C Ashton (Northampton); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), L Deacon (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester, captain), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: S Thompson (Brive), D Wilson (Bath), T Palmer (Stade Francais), J Haskell (Stade Francais), B Youngs (Leicester), J Wilkinson (Toulon), M Tait (Sale Sharks)
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (NZ)
Assistant referees: Alain Rolland (Ire), Simon McDowell (Ire)
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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