London (AP) – England have scored 35 points or more in five of their last seven games and are promising a “daring” brand of rugby. France’s direction under coach Guy Noves is toward the swaggering and free-spirited style of old.
Get ready for some entertainment and plenty of points in the latest edition of “Le Crunch” on Saturday.
It might be pushing it to expect anything close to the 90 points the rivals served up in their last Twickenham meeting in the Six Nations. On that occasion, in the final round of the 2015 tournament, the English played fast and loose as they fought — in vain, as it turned out — for the title and won 55-35.
But England and France are certainly talking up an exciting, attacking opening encounter. And with bonus points on offer for the first time in the Six Nations, why shouldn’t it happen?
“In rugby terms, you’ve traditionally got two contrasting styles — French flair and England’s dogged conservative approach,” England coach Eddie Jones said, “but we want to be absolutely daring against the French in this first game and set the standard for the tournament.”
England have been setting the standard in northern hemisphere rugby for the past year.
The team is on a 14-match winning run, dating to its final pool game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and one more victory will set a new national record. Repeat last year’s Grand Slam, and England would surpass New Zealand’s world record of 18 straight victories, a streak ended by Ireland in November.
“They are a formidable team, as efficient as it can be,” France center Gael Fickou said. “It’s probably not the most beautiful team, but the most efficient at the moment, up there with the All Blacks.”
Recent history is on England’s side. France haven’t won at Twickenham in 10 years, and have only two wins in their last 10 matches there in the Six Nations. England have beaten France in eight of their last 10 Six Nations meetings.
England are the defending champions, while France have finished in the bottom half of the table in every edition of the championship since 2011.
But there may be something stirring inside Les Tricolores.
A 52-8 win over Samoa, dovetailed with narrow losses to Australia and New Zealand, made for an encouraging November for the French, who appear to be warming to Noves’ management and approach.
For the England game, the former Toulouse coach has named a team of players with good knowledge of the attacking rugby he has been trying to implement since he replaced Philippe Saint-Andre after the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
The loss to injury of dashing center Wesley Fofana is a cruel blow, and meant Fickou was picked alongside Remi Lamerat in midfield.
The one notable selection was Baptiste Serin, who will start at scrumhalf in place of Maxime Machenaud, who played in all three November tests for France. Serin will be paired with flyhalf Camille Lopez.
With five of England’s first-choice forwards missing, Jones has dipped into his deep pool of back-ups.
In the most interesting call, Maro Itoje — the new star of the English game — will switch from lock to blindside flanker in the absence of the injured Chris Robshaw.
“He has got big shoes to fill,” Jones said of Itoje. “Chris Robshaw has been one of our integral players in the team with his workrate but Maro has trained well in that position.”
Lock George Kruis is out because of knee ligament damage, but Joe Marler is back from a broken leg to start at loosehead prop in place of Mako Vunipola, and No. 8 Nathan Hughes replaces Billy Vunipola, who will miss the whole tournament after knee surgery. Elliot Daly was selected ahead of Jack Nowell on the left wing.
“They are an example in terms of resilience, of strength of will,” Noves said. “But I hope we will show that we can start doing the same, and that we will match up. We know they are a great team, their development system is so good that even with a few injuries, they have enough depth.”