England v Ireland on Saturday night was enthralling and significant. Significant because the England rugby team made an emphatic statement to the rest of the world that they are ready for the World Cup. This was a mighty performance by England when one considers the quality of the opposition and the venue.
Winning away from home in the Six Nations is a huge challenge, especially at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium where the crowd is a 16th man. England’s decimation of Ireland stands together with the 38-21 triumph in 2012 over the All Blacks and the victorious 2003 World Cup campaign.
England have to back it up
It is the most obvious statement to make after such an impressive performance but England must take down the French on Sunday. ‘Le Crunch’ battles are always special and England will have no idea on what France team turns up at Twickenham. Nor do the French either. For so much of the Wales v France match in Paris, Jacques Brunel’s men were the better team. Brunel went for a massive pack and they duly delivered, making hard yards and nullifying the Welsh attack. It then went horribly French in the second half. Yoann Huget is one of the best wingers in Europe but his horrific error tracking back let Wales in.
It is to Wales’ immense credit that they found a way to win, a useful trait that they now have in their armoury. Worse was to follow when France’s second row Sebastien Vahaamahina decided to throw a ridiculous pass out wide for George North’s second score. If France had kept the ball in hand in that sequence of play, then the match would have been theirs.
Louis Picamoles is the key for France
Herein lies the danger for England. France are more than capable of upsetting England’s rhythm. We saw it at Twickenham in 2017 when France deserved to win before Ben Te’o’s intervention. Louis Picamoles looms as a key figure for the French because he was excellent in the first half of the Welsh encounter. Picamoles encapsulates everything good and bad about French rugby. At his best, he is one of the world’s premier number 8’s. We have seen it at all his clubs that when he is in the mood Picamoles is so hard to stop. His try scoring record is impressive and he seems to have added some work-rate in defence.
Too often however, laziness on and off the pitch has blighted the Montpellier man. If France have a chance on Sunday then Picamoles and his backrow have to get their side rumbling forward. It is a big ask given how good Billy Vunipola, Mark Wilson and Tom Curry were against Ireland.
England’s fitness is better than that of France
Yes, France have the size to trouble anyone including England on Sunday. That said such is the size of the France pack that if they do not dominate possession, they will run out of puff. France have lost too many games in the final quarter over the last few years for the question of their conditioning not to be raised. England in contrast looked fiercely fit and sharp in Dublin. They never let off the intensity and battered Ireland at every turn, right up until the final whistle. If England continue this at Twickenham, there will only be one winner.
England need to prey on France’s back three
It is one of the oldest adages in rugby – your kick is as only good as your chase. On the weekend, it was extraordinary to see such glaring mistakes made when teams were chasing back. England’s chase was spot on in Dublin with Elliot’s Daly score a perfect example.
On Sunday, England should target France’s back three. The likes of Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard possess trickery and vision but they are ageing. With the pace and power that the English team possess they have an advantage. It would be of no surprise if Mathieu Bastareaud and Virimi Vakatawa are recalled to the France starting XV on Sunday. They are big men, who can challenge England on the gain line.
Same again for England Rugby
It looks like Maro Itoje will succumb to a knee injury for the France clash but in Courtney Lawes they have the ideal replacement. France need no reminder on what Courtney Lawes can do to a fly half’s rib cage.
What is exciting for England is that they are back at Twickenham and they will be full of confidence. For the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola, they will will ramp it up further on Sunday after their run out against the Irish. Henry Slade came of age as an international player in the cauldron of Dublin. Slade’s vision and innovation is as good as anyone’s in the English game and he could tear France apart.
The only downside for England was their discipline in the first half of the Ireland clash. That said, England’s high octane and brutal approach was always going to test the boundaries. They more or less got it spot on despite Tom Curry’s indiscipline in the first quarter.
England’s near perfect performance against Ireland spells real danger for France. Eddie Jones’ men will be at home and they will be oozing confidence. We know that France traditionally don’t travel well and they will be devastated by their loss to Wales. It will take a superhuman effort by them to beat England and it is difficult to see that happening on Sunday.
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