It is funny how the wheel turns. Once upon a time it was France who were les grandes énigmes; now it is red rose supporters who are shrugging with palms upturned and wondering which England team will turn up. It is a long time since Les Bleus arrived at Twickenham with a better balanced lineup or, more ominously still, one with such clear potential for further improvement.
Maybe their hosts will be roused into action and extend France’s dismal Six Nations record across the Channel since the topsy-turvy day in 2005 when, from 17-6 down at half-time, Dimitri Yachvili’s boot secured an unlikely 18-17 victory. Rather more likely is that France – recent Covid-19 disruption permitting – will underline the widening gap between the teams in terms of front foot confidence and genuine attacking elan.
A glorious repeat of 1991, when France launched one of the most daring raids seen at Twickenham from behind their own posts to set up Philippe Saint-André’s famous try at the other end, is asking too much but, 30 years on, the intoxicating scent of Gallic ambition hangs in the air again. Not since Thomas Castaignède twinkled so brightly outside Philippe Carbonneau in the brilliant 51-0 grand slam demolition of Wales at Wembley in 1998 have two French half-backs headed to London for a championship fixture accompanied by such high expectations.
Everyone already knows about Antoine Dupont, dubbed the “mini Jonah Lomu” by the former French hooker Benjamin Kayser this week. The Toulouse scrum-half, still only 24, has it all: the strength, the daring, the acceleration and, increasingly, the presence that comes with being recognised as the best No 9 in the world. Slightly less attention, for now, has been paid to Dupont’s outrider, Matthieu Jalibert. By the time the 2023 World Cup comes around, the Bordeaux-Bègles fly-half could also be the most influential 10 on the planet.
Listen, for example, to this assessment from Jalibert’s one-time Bordeaux head coach, Rory Teague, who was also England’s skills coach under Eddie Jones in 2017. “You’ve got a very interesting player there,” says Teague, who remains in touch with his former charge. “There were elements of his mental resilience that reminded me of Owen Farrell: he’s very tenacious, very driven and demanding of high standards. Yet he also has that French flair, that bit of stardust you don’t often see. His change of speed, his ability to scan a defence, see a gap early and exploit it is pretty impressive. It’s great to see how he’s evolving.”
Jalibert, 22, also seems to have timed his arrival on the international scene just right. Look around the world and running fly-halves are increasingly back in vogue, as noted by the Scotland coach, Gregor Townsend. “I see fly-halves who are runners being more effective in the game than ever before,” Townsend told BBC 5 live, citing Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga in New Zealand and Scotland’s own Finn Russell. “These are players who attack the line. At stand-off you’ve got the first opportunity to take on the defence. The more you pass the ball, the more a good defence might close you down but if you’ve got that running instinct it’s going to serve you much better than maybe it did five or 10 years ago.”
With the gifted Romain Ntamack back from injury on the bench, Virimi Vakatawa restored to the midfield and Gaël Fickou adding more understated class and defensive organisation, it makes for an intriguing contrast with England’s more conservative selectorial approach and stilted attacking efforts in the tournament to date. A shortage of ball and a spiralling penalty count has clearly done them no favours but generally England’s first instinct has been to kick first and think afterwards.
Harsh on George Ford and Owen Farrell, perhaps, but France appear to be much further down the boulevard towards coaching’s holy grail: a team capable of making massive dents up front, the set-piece included, threatening around the rucks as well as out wide and of kicking smartly out of hand. “The French do like to play on instinct and are probably less pragmatic, but that side of their game is developing,” cautions Teague, who also worked with Dupont’s understudy Baptiste Serin during his time in Bordeaux. “They like to keep the ball alive and play to space; taking the ball into contact and going to the floor is not their first thought. It’s more: ‘How can I manipulate a defender, can I take him on and keep the ball alive?’”
With Shaun Edwards having also instilled more organisational steel, Charles Ollivon’s leadership style proving popular and Brice Dulin usually safe and secure beneath the high ball, it adds up to a mighty challenge for an England side who squeaked home – slightly fortuitously – in sudden death extra time when they met a weakened French team in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup in December.
With the same referee, Andrew Brace, in charge again, the 14 penalties England conceded in Cardiff will doubtless ensure the official monitors the hosts more closely at the breakdown this time. It is England’s belief, nevertheless, that they can easily cut out the handful of silly penalties that cost them against Wales and Jones is in no hurry to sit back and coo at the exciting runners heading England’s way. “You guys like to talk about attack all the time but we know that Test rugby is won by defence. If our defence is right that will feed opportunities for our attack.”
The problem with that pragmatic analysis is that France, admittedly having played one game fewer, have conceded just two tries to England’s seven so far. It is easy to see Luke Cowan-Dickie bringing close-range intent and bristle while Maro Itoje has a point to prove but England will also require Kyle Sinckler at tighthead and Billy Vunipola at No 8 to underline their Lions-quality credentials.
In short, Jones’s side will need to deliver comfortably their best performance of the tournament to halt France’s push towards a first Six Nations title since 2010. “We’ve always known France are a sleeping giant of world rugby but now they’ve woken up,” says Teague. Next time anyone jokes about which French team will turn up, the answer is self evident. A very good one.