Six Nations: England must salvage their broken campaign against a resurgent France

It was supposed to be the decisive occasion in this Six Nations. The pre-championship script had it that England v France would be a high-stakes, heavyweight showdown with the title and Grand Slam ambitions on the line.

That is not how it has panned out, creating an unexpected backdrop to ‘Le Crunch’ at Twickenham. One side has been outplayed, the other has had an outbreak. One side has underperformed, the other may be undercooked. One side has suffered from indiscipline on the field, the other from indiscipline off it.

England and France are not where they expected to be. The hosts are seeking to salvage a broken campaign when they had designs on retaining the trophy, while the visitors have been engulfed in criticism at home, when they hoped to be in London on the crest of a wave, armed with momentum and acclaim.

England, through indiscipline and poor performance, are not where they expected to be

A resurgent France could still win the Six Nations 2021 title and make a clean sweep doing it

A resurgent France could still win the Six Nations 2021 title and make a clean sweep doing it

Yet there is still a lot riding on the contest. France remain on course for the title and a clean sweep, despite the disruption of having their last match postponed. And England cannot finish top of the pile after defeats by Scotland and Wales, but a win would help to save face and show these opponents they have no intention of accepting a sudden shift in the cross-Channel balance of power.

In the England camp, they know the magnitude of the threat they face. This rivalry has been reignited by France’s progress under Fabien Galthie and the home players are relishing that fact, despite the problems it may pose, today and beyond. ‘We’ve seen their growth since the World Cup,’ noted Mako Vunipola this week.

‘France are coming here as one of the best, if not the best team in Europe. For them to be back up there challenging and being a force again is not only good for them, it’s good for rugby in general.’

What has not been so good for the Six Nations in particular has been the recent Covid chaos in the French camp, which saw Galthie and other staff members, along with 11 players, test positive for the virus.

It emerged players left their ‘bubble’ in Rome to go for waffles, while Galthie went to watch his son play a match in Paris and Federation president Bernard Laporte took a commercial flight, in defiance of protocols.

While the Federation and their government presided over a whitewash — exonerating all involved — Galthie has been under fire and Laporte has threatened players about the need to maintain unity and in-house secrecy, or face being jettisoned. It has created tension in the ranks in the midst of their bid for a first title since 2010.

England will need their creative veterans like Owen Farrell to use all their experience to win

England will need their creative veterans like Owen Farrell to use all their experience to win

The postponement of the game against Scotland means France have not played since February 14, though some of the squad made appearances for their clubs last weekend. Eddie Jones played down the likely impact on the visitors, the England head coach saying: ‘They’ve had the luxury of maybe giving their players a break. They are a well-prepared side and we know they’ll be ready to play.’

However, former England back-rower Joe Worsley, now coaching at Castres, has seen how French clubs — including his own — have struggled after Covid breaks and he told Sportsmail: ‘It’s a big problem. The French team is going to be affected in some way. If you look at the teams who had this problem, there have been different performances after. They will be fresher and raring to go but for a week or two after, it’s not great.’

England will seek to capitalise on any rustiness, while striving for a delicate balance between essential ferocity and renewed composure. They cannot give away another torrent of penalties like the 14 in Cardiff, which explains why two English referees — Matthew Carley and Wayne Barnes — have assisted with their preparations.

Keeping their heads will not be easy amid the bid to avoid a third defeat in four games. France are too powerful to be overwhelmed by an English onslaught. They will apply brutal pressure of their own, even if the hosts should be capable of claiming an edge in the set piece, especially as France are deprived by injury of influential lock Bernard Le Roux.

England cannot afford to be too fixated on France's lethal scrum-half Antoine Dupont

England cannot afford to be too fixated on France’s lethal scrum-half Antoine Dupont

Against Wales, there was improved fluency in England’s attack and that progress must continue, as scoring chances may be strictly limited by a pragmatic, territorial side defensively drilled by Shaun Edwards. For all the talk of transition, Jones’s side have a well-established creative hub in the Ben Youngs-George Ford-Owen Farrell axis and those veterans will need to outsmart their younger counterparts.

If there is too much fixation with the lethal scrum-half, Antoine Dupont, the danger is Matthieu Jalibert will be free to wreak havoc in the No 10 shirt. He managed to do so often enough in the Autumn Nations Cup final, when Galthie deployed his reserves and nearly caused an upset, but this time the Bordeaux playmaker can unleash so much deadly firepower out wide. Virimi Vakatawa’s return further enhances the potency of the Gallic back line.

There is no crowd to galvanise England and France proved their greater resilience away from home by claiming a backs-to-the-wall win over Ireland in Dublin, their last outing. They have not won at Twickenham in the Six Nations since 2005 but then Scotland had not done so for 38 years until last month. Predicting this one certainly is not a scientific process, but a strong hunch is England will rise to the challenge and show they are not yet ready to fall into the shadow of the French.

That moment may come, before the next World Cup, but perhaps not on Saturday.