THE expectations could have been lower for France if this was a game being looked at two weekends ago but then came a major upset and the equation changed thereafter.
On Saturday (kickoff 12.45am Sunday Malaysian time) France hosts defending champions England off the back of a 34-17 triumph over Italy on February 24, also at home, but it was the Scotland game against England the same weekend in Edinburgh that has given renewed hope to the likes of France, losers four times to England in the last five editions.
That defeat to Scotland was only England’s second in 26 Tests under coach Eddie Jones, which tells everything about the team’s transformation since a disastrous World Cup at home in 2015 but Scotland exposed cracks in England’s game, particularly at the breakdown and its defence in the midfield.
Following that defeat, questions were raised in England over Jones’ selections and training methods but for now there is no hint of any rumblings within the team.
But despite having a poor day at the breakdown two weekends ago, Jones has again named a starting 15 for Paris without a specialist openside or a known ball scavenger at the breakdown. Nathan Hughes, a strong ball carrier, plays again at number 8 while lock Courtney Lawes is again named at blindside, with Chris Robshaw, England’s most successful player at the breakdown against Scotland, at openside. Sam Underhill, the other option at openside, is injured and will also not be available for next weekend’s concluding game against Ireland.
Hooker and regular captain Dylan Hartley is another player out injured and the captaincy will be taken over by inside centre Owen Farrell.
The other normal practice by England has been to substitute Hartley around the start of the last quarter of a game and this too was questioned by pundits after the Scotland game, when what England needed badly at one point was leadership. England though is not the only side that does this often. In fact the only team in the top 10 of the world rankings that plays its captain till the end regularly is New Zealand.
France lost its two opening matches – against Ireland and Scotland – in this year’s competition but both were close calls.
But coach Jacques Brunel, in his first year in charge, finally gave the national side its first win in 9 Tests in beating Italy 34-17 and has decided not to consider any of the nine players who he had earlier dropped for one game after a problem during an evening out in town after the Scotland game. Of the nine, about five would have made the matchday 23.
Not many would have given much weight to a win against Italy but Brunel thinks otherwise and wants to carry that momentum into the England game.
Jones has made two significant changes to his starting 15, with Ben Te’o replacing Jonathan Joseph at outside-centre and Anthony Watson moving to fullback in place of Mike Brown, thus allowing Elliot Daly to return on one wing.
Te’o’s selection is crucial because in Mathieu Bastareaud France has a centre built more like a prop.
Bastareaud was a regular for France under coach Philippe Saint-Andre but lost favour under previous coach Guy Noves. He made his return two weekends ago after serving a suspension and looks to be a regular again under Brunel.
He showed evidence of his strength in winning four turnovers against Italy, which is rare for a backline player, and France is hoping that Bastareaud will again be at his devastating best in this aspect of the game against England.
England has its own reasons in wanting to get back to winning ways, for another defeat will surely lead to more question despite the many successes under Jones.
Super Rugby is into its fourth round this week, with the Highlanders scoring their second win in two, beating the Stormers 33-15 while the Rebels had the better of the Brumbies 33-10. For the Stormers that was their third defeat in a row after their first round home win against the Jaguares.