A fixture between England and France at Twickenham should provide plenty of clues as to where Steve Borthwick’s England are heading with RWC 2023 fast approaching. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the team news this afternoon and attempts to predict how the test match will go. Le Crunch should answer key RWC 2023 questions this weekend.
England media leaks and attacking plan evolution
Whenever media leaks start to filter out from an international team before official team selection, it indicates that certain personnel within the team are not rowing in the same direction and looking to create instability.
Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield will have plenty to consider on that topic immediately after this incredibly tough test match against France at Twickenham. Given how early in their tenure, this is a massive alarm bells moment. Trust and transparency within the collective team is under scrutiny.
The media leaks were spot on. Marcus Smith will start this test match at ten. An excellent ball player who showcased his talents last weekend for Harlequins, I hope for the player’s sake that he is not being setup to fail here by management here.
The opposition will be aggressive defensively. France will not allow Smith time to settle into the contest. Smith’s defensive work will be tested to breaking point as Cros, Alldritt and Ollivon look to test out the Harlequins half-back early and often.
I hope Smith delivers a performance as England’s attacking long-term progression depends on Smith playing an active role in the game plan. I do fear though that a subpar performance at the weekend may see Smith consigned to the outside going forward as Owen Farrell and George Ford to come in and orchestrate.
The England pack looks formidable. Their front five will create attacking platform. Their set piece is on point and their work rate without the ball is excellent.
Ellis Genge continues to evolve as a player and leader of this playing group. His captaincy decision is no surprise with Lawes (injured) and Farrell selected on the bench. Maro Itoje is a colossal second row operator whose physicality and skill set are world class.
An abrasive back row unit complements the front five. Ludlam has impressed no end this season with his work rate with or without the ball. Willis is a gem of a player whose breakdown work will be key this weekend. Dombrandt’s ball carrying and breakdown is a super asset for England.
The clear issues with this England side is that synchronization between pack and forwards. The running lines have been conservative with one out runners.
England need to provide more options with ball in hand, more inside running lines to make opposition pause for a fraction more defensively. The ability of England to change the focal point of attack is a work in progress. It needs to come to the party this weekend.
Ollie Lawrence and Freddie Steward have provided quality cameos when given quick ruck ball. These players will flourish if England can evolve their attacking game plan to the next level. They are well capable of doing so but the performances to date with ball in hand have flattered to deceive.
15. Freddie Steward
14. Max Malins 12. Ollie Lawrence 13. Henry Slade 11. Anthony Watson
9. Jack van Poortvliet 10. Marcus Smith
1. Ellis Genge (C) 2. Jamie George 3. Kyle Sinckler
4. Maro Itoje 5. Ollie Chessum
6. Lewis Ludlam 8. Alex Dombrandt 7. Jack Willis
16. Jack Walker 17. Mako Vunipola 18. Dan Cole 19. David Ribbans 20. Ben Curry 21. Alex Mitchell 22. Owen Farrell 23. Henry Arundell
France evaluate the tighthead depth chart as Danty returns
Fabien Galthie and management have had to look deep into the tighthead depth chart. It is fair to say that Mohamed Haouas does not have a test match future after his sending off against Scotland. Uini Atonio remains suspended but it a perfect to run the rule on Dorian Aldegheri.
The French management may have stepped upon their starting tighthead prop for RWC 2023. Dorian Aldegheri is dynamic in open play, rock solid in the scrum. The player will be tested by England but if the player excels, then there is no reason why the Toulouse prop cannot be a first team starter going forward.
There are three changes to the side who defeated Scotland in Paris two weeks ago. Tighthead prop change has been duly noted. Jelonch is injured so the ever reliable Cros comes into the back row. Cros is a quality operator whose tackling and breakdown work allows Ollivon and Alldritt to express themselves more with ball in hand.
The final change is in the three quarters. Moefana is replaced by the explosive Danty who will look to test out Lawrence and Slade defensively early. A direct ball runner who Galthie loves and France will look to Danty to carve out key breaks to unleash Penaud and Dumortier to score tries. There are tries in this French side regardless of how little possession they may have.
France will look to execute their attacking game plan with Dupont, Ntamack and Ramos at the controls. Their ability to change the point of attack is something that England struggled with when Scotland came to Twickenham. France will be confident of creating significant line breaks and look to prey on potential England pack indiscipline if the visitors get an early foothold.
An explosive bench to come on and close out this test match as well. This is an acid test for France and their ambitions for RWC 2023. It is a fixture where they were to lose, questions would be asked within the French public and media on the aspirations of this side.
15. Thomas Ramos
14. Damian Penaud 12. Jonathan Danty 13. Gael Fickou 11. Ethan Dumortier
10. Romain Ntamack 9. Antoine Dupont (captain)
6. Francois Cros 8. Gregory Alldritt 7. Charles Ollivon
4. Thibaud Flament 5. Paul Willemse
1. Cyril Baille 2. Julien Marchand 3. Dorian Aldegheri
16. Peato Mauvaka 17. Reda Wardi 18. Sipili Falatea 19. Romain Taofifenua 20. Sekou Macalou
21. Maxime Lucu 22. Yoram Moefana 23. Melvyn Jaminet
Test match exposes fragility quickly so France will know that their record in Twickenham is appalling. 2007 is a long time for France not to win in Twickenham.
England need to elevate their performances significantly to new levels to win this fixture. The attacking variation among back and pack is required but France will love if this game becomes unstructured.
What England do this weekend in terms of an attacking game plan will indicate plenty about their game plan direction heading into RWC 2023.
This French side need to issue a statement performance and this weekend would be the perfect time to do so.
The Scottish performance in round three showed flashes of brilliance but also defensive vulnerability when Scotland attacked on the front foot in the second and third quarters.
The French pack will create sufficient platform to allow Dupont and Ntamack to carve out this win but the early exchanges will be tough going for the French front five initially. Ramos’ boot at key times will be most welcome to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
A dry weather day at Twickenham will buoy France no end. This should be a high scoring affair. France to win by 8-10 points and secure a bonus point try to boot.
England’s cohesion issues will be magnified further and as mentioned, I fear for Marcus Smith in this fixture given the competition for the ten jersey within England.