England’s fitness will win a close match Posted about 11 years ago

The way France laboured in defeat against Wales in the last round of the Six Nations offered a flashback to old England: scrummaging, mauling and trying to blast their way over the gainline, hoping a defender missed a tackle.

They were more Les Blancs than Les Bleus and they drew a blank, backing up their defeat to Italy in the opening round in their worst start to a championship campaign for 31 years. Tipped for the title just a few weeks ago, they arrive at Twickenham on Saturday more likely to win the wooden spoon.

The France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has promised that his side will play with daring and flair, recapturing what used to be the essence of the French game, but England are not convinced and have beefed up their side, making three changes from the starting line-up in Dublin.

If the return of Manu Tuilagi in the centre can be seen as a counterweight to Mathieu Bastareaud in the France midfield, the return of Dylan Hartley at hooker will add aggression to England’s scrum and the presence of Courtney Lawes at blind-side flanker will give the Six Nations leaders an extra line-out option and ballast in mauls.

If France offer a moving target at Twickenham, it will be a closer game than form suggests. England’s advance under their head coach Stuart Lancaster, steady at first, has accelerated in recent months.

December’s victory over New Zealand has added belief to the resolution that was a feature of Lancaster’s reign from the start, but England’s game has developed to a level they have not reached since the years leading up to the 2003 World Cup success.

Which is not to say that England are as powerful and effective as they were then, merely that they have become resourceful again. After defeating Scotland with a fast and wide approach, they outmuscled Ireland in the rain at Dublin: whereas the outside-half Owen Farrell touched the ball more than 50 times against the Scots, he did so only on 16 occasions at the Aviva Stadium, protected by his half-back partner Ben Youngs.

England have become pragmatic, but they have also revolutionised their approach to the breakdown, not afraid to commit numbers when they have to and looking to get the ball away quickly, a contrast to even last November when they were slow and static against Australia and South Africa, attacking narrow channels through lumbering forwards and making little impression.

Now getting the ball away more quickly, and even in the pouring rain in Dublin they managed to create space, unlike Ireland, they have widened the point of attack and Alex Goode has become an effective second receiver from full-back.

Tuilagi’s return in place of Billy Twelvetrees suggests England will be more direct against France, certainly initially. They question France’s conditioning and believe the game will be won in the final 20 minutes when they intend to use their bench to life the tempo.

Victory would put England two steps away from a first grand slam in 10 years and well ahead of schedule. They aimed to peak this time in 2015, the year of the next World Cup which they are hosting, but the road to 2003 was hardly straight or without pot-holes: starting with Wales at Wembley in 1999, they were denied the clean sweep in the last round of the championship for three successive seasons.

Each setback hardened them and England finish this campaign in Cardiff. The thought of history repeating itself may nourish them more than Wales, who are lacking a spark, but something that marks out Lancaster’s squad from previous ones is a lack of arrogance.

England will be the home union best represented in the Lions squad in Australia later this year, not just because of the way they are playing, in terms of unit skills rather than individually, but because of the options they have in a number of positions.

France should provide their sternest challenge this Six Nations, in a rugby sense at least with emotion more of a factor in Cardiff, but England are getting to the stage where they have the answers to most questions.

Will France produce a reaction at Twickenham and upset the odds?

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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