'Le Crunch' delivers its 108th instalment when England and France meet at Twickenham on Saturday. Here, we examine five talking points heading into the round four showdown.
Under the pump
Defeat to France would place England in the midst of a crisis. The title was conceded in Cardiff with two rounds to spare and concern that negligible progress has been made since the World Cup has been replaced by mounting evidence they have entered reverse. Success in the Autumn Nations Cup and seizing the 2020 Championship masked the decline of a stale side. It is a precarious position – lose to France and they face the prospect of their worst ever Six Nations performance with a tricky fixture in Dublin to come.
Challenging the 'untouchables'
A criticism made of Jones has been his inertia in team selection. England’s first XV has barely evolved since reaching the 2019 World Cup final, with the emergence of lock Jonny Hill the only new development. Jones has acted for the arrival of France, demoting Lions Elliot Daly and Jamie George to the bench and giving starts to Max Malins and Luke Cowan-Dickie. Finally, the ‘untouchables’ are being challenged. Daly and George, and also the likes of Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola, are class acts capable of being fully involved in France 2023, but selection must be earned over and over for England to flourish.
Urgent repairs needed
England have been the architects of their own downfall through a debilitating penalty count that has seen them concede 41 times across the opening three rounds. To curb this self-destructive streak, Jones invited referees Wayne Barnes and Matt Carley into camp this week to oversee training and talk to the players about where they are going wrong. England have vowed to continue playing on the edge, but know that France will punish another disciplinary implosion.
The French imponderable
How affected have France been by their disrupted build-up? Even they will not know for sure until Saturday when they play their first match in a month. Twelve front line players, including Antoine Dupont and captain Charles Ollivon, tested positive for coronavirus. Apart from the distraction of the investigation into how the outbreak started amid revelations that some players left the squad’s bubble in Rome to eat waffles and on the same weekend head coach Fabien Galthie attended a game to watch his son in action, there is the question over what shape the affected personnel will be in. It is an imponderable that will be answered at Twickenham.
Must stop Dupont
If he is fit and firing, then Dupont will be the key to France’s hopes of maintaining course for the Grand Slam. The player of the 2020 Six Nations is the irrepressible force at the heart of Les Blues’ welcome resurgence who has taken scrum-half play to a new level. Electric running skills that combine pace, power and vision are matched by his generalship and shrewd defence. The 24-year-old is one of Test rugby’s smallest players, yet also its most influential on recent form. Jones has outlined the need to “keep him in a little box” – good luck trying.