All the headlines this week are around Marcus Smith taking Owen Farrell’s jersey. Rightly so, as it is a brave call made by England coach, Steve Borthwick. International coaches, particularly England’s, are paid the big bucks to make these selection decisions. For a traditionally risk-averse coach, this is a significant change in direction for Borthwick.
Despite the noise around Marcus Smith having the keys to run the team at number 10, it will be England’s forwards who will determine who wins ‘Le Crunch’. Charlie Inglefield assesses the key match-ups and looks ahead to a thrilling Six Nations clash at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon.
Not Marcus Smith, but England’s forwards can play a big role
England’s forwards need to give Marcus Smith a platform
The old rugby adage of “Forwards win matches and backs decide by how much” remains very true at the international level. The selection of Marcus Smith is exciting but like any fly-half, he needs his forwards to give him a platform to launch from. England’s pack has got some of its snarls back in this year’s Six Nations but the next two games against France and Ireland will truly determine where England and also where England’s forwards are at.
READ MORE: England’s forwards get the job done over Italy in men’s 2023 Six Nations
England’s new captain, Ellis Genge, and his forwards go up against a monster French pack, who have not quite been at their best in this year’s tournament. The French coaching team led by Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards would have been into their men all week. It is still a formidable challenge for England’s forwards, especially in the set piece where the brilliant Julien Marchand and Charles Ollivon await. England will need the likes of Maro Itoje, and Jamie George to be back to their absolute best. If Genge’s pack can nudge the forward battle, then Marcus Smith can use his undoubted talent to ignite England’s attack.
Steve Borthwick v Shaun Edwards
You cannot get two prouder Englishmen and northerners than Shaun Edwards, and Steve Borthwick. Many people think that these two should have teamed up together for England but on Saturday they will be plotting each other’s downfall.
They share an extraordinary work ethic that ensures their respective teams would have let no stone unturned come kick-off. Edwards will have been smashing into his men all week so that Twickenham can be breached successfully. 2005 was the last time France beat England at Twickenham in the Six Nations. Any notion that France will have one eye on hosting the World Cup and not England on Saturday is rubbish. Edwards will be furious at how France’s 2022 impregnable defence have not been replicated in 2023 – France have conceded 25 points per game thus far. They have much to prove after an underwhelming start to the tournament.
There is so much at stake this weekend at Twickenham for both teams. If England wins, then they can approach Dublin safe in the knowledge that a corner has been turned. They could also be in contention for the title. If France wins, they also get a shot at the title as well as a massive confidence booster for the World Cup later this year.
Jack van Poortvliet v Dupont
There are many enticing match-ups across the pitch but none more so than at scrum-half. The extraordinary Antoine Dupont has played every minute this year and his world-class standards have never dipped. He was utterly magnificent in a losing cause against Ireland in round two. The pressures of being captain of France, leading them in a home World Cup and all the commercial work that goes with it have not dented Dupont’s standing as one of the best players in the world.
Therefore the task awaiting Jack van Poortvliet is a mighty one. Van Poortvliet has the talent and ability to throw a few curve balls in Dupont’s direction. He is improving on every outing and it would be wonderful from an England viewpoint to see him taking quick taps and running more with the ball. England will need van Poortvliet to be razor sharp in his distribution, and his box-kicking but above all his running game.
Fickou v Lawrence
Gael Fickou has been the cornerstone of France’s turnaround in the last couple of years. Shaun Edwards has installed him as France’s defensive leader and Fickou has risen magnificently to the task at hand. He was superb against Scotland and his work rate in defence has not dimmed his seasoned ability to attack. His clash against Ollie Lawrence, who has arguably been England’s best player this year is worth the admission fee alone.
Gael Fickou and Ollie Lawrence are both big bodies who can crash through defensive lines, and offload. But it is their defensive capabilities that are often underrated. They are both masters of the jackle at the breakdown and taking man and ball with their physicality. Expect them both to be influential again on Saturday afternoon.
France’s injuries and form v England’s tentativeness
France has been flat this year after sweeping all before them over the last two seasons. Italy could and perhaps should have beaten them in Rome. Ireland thumped them in Dublin in what was admittedly an incredible game of rugby that France fully contributed to.
Scotland then pushed them all the way in Paris before Fickou saved France’s blushes late in the game. What France have shown is their ability to win ugly and tough. It is a crucial trait that Shaun Edwards and Fabien Galthie have brought to the French national team since they took over. It is why France remains favourites for Saturday and strong contenders for the World Cup.
READ MORE: England takes huge step forward but Owen Farrell question remains
Steve Borthwick has pulled off a shock selection by dropping the seemingly undroppable Owen Farrell. Given Borthwick’s love of the set piece, and a kick-chase game built on territory dominance – it is a surprise. England have been understandably tentative in their first three matches, and even with Marcus Smith back in at fly-half, it will take some time for the team to adapt around him. Borthwick’s men are still finding their feet in a new set-up and France will surely look to exploit this on Saturday.
What should give England hope is the mounting injuries to France’s first team. Uini Atonio, Cameron Woki, Gabin Villière, and Anthony Jelonch are all missing from last year’s Grand Slam team. In addition to the injuries is the form of influential players like Paul Willemse, Grégory Alldritt, and Romain Ntamack.
England definitely have a chance of upsetting the odds on the weekend. They are at Twickenham and with two successive wins under their belt. It will be up to England’s pack to determine what kind of platform Marcus Smith will have to showcase his undoubted talent. England to win ‘Le Crunch’ by three points – 25-22.
“Main photo graphic courtesy of England Rugby Facebook page“