England and France will bring the 2022 Six Nations to a close when they meet in Paris on Saturday.
Here, we examine five talking points as France stand on the brink of securing their first silverware for over a decade.
Another inquest into Eddie Jones’ flailing England project beckons if they are dispatched in Paris, as seems likely. A third-place finish is the best his team can hope for, while the bleakest scenario is to end up fifth for the second year running. Jones is aware that the stakes are high, admitting that “we need results” in a departure from his usual stance on demanding he is judged on the World Cup alone. Yet, if England again collapse to an unacceptable third defeat of the tournament, history suggests the Rugby Football Union is unlikely to act beyond conducting a review.
A roll of the dice
If Jones’ selection gamble backfires spectacularly, even the RFU might shed its reluctance to consider the previously unthinkable. Two full-backs have been deployed in the back three in George Furbank and Freddie Steward, a call that reflects France’s status as the highest kicking team in the tournament by an average of 771 metres per match. And, with Ben Youngs restored at scrum-half, the intention is clearly to engage in a battle of the skies. England’s attack has floundered all tournament and, given this reactionary tactical rethink, it is unlikely to finally detonate in Paris.
Thriving in adversity
Despite the scattergun approach to selection as typified by the recall of Furbank for his first appearance of the tournament, Jones’ side are united and possess an abundance of spirit. The courageous defiance displayed against Ireland in round four when they played all but 82 seconds with 14 men following the dismissal of Charlie Ewels was evidence of a team willing to fight for each other. Ellis Genge has spoken of the removal of cliques and it is clear that the clipping of Saracens’ influence, as well as a cull of senior players, has had a positive impact.
Worthy winners in waiting
Bookmakers view France as eight-point favourites and, if they complete the Grand Slam to register a first Six Nations title since 2010, it is hard to imagine a single voice of complaint. Defeating title rivals Ireland 30-24 in round two was a pivotal moment and even their recent wobble in Cardiff demonstrated the new strain of defensive resilience instilled by Shaun Edwards. They kick more than any team, but only Ireland have score more tries – 20 compared to their 14 – and in half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack they possess two of the game’s most creative talents.
Continuity pays off
As Jones chops and changes in selection – Furbank, Nick Isiekwe, Joe Launchbury, Joe Marchant and Max Malins have passed through the revolving door in this Six Nations – France are remarkably settled. Historically, they have undertaken regular surgery to their side, especially at half-back, where now Dupont and Ntamack benefit from being undisputed starters. Eleven players have started all four matches so far, with all but one change a result of absentees through Covid, while a total of 26 personnel have been used.