This already has the feel of a vintage Six Nations season and the next two weekends could be similarly memorable. Even at a grey, deserted Twickenham, as England’s players huddled tight in their final eve-of-game training session, there was a sense of anticipation in the chilly air. If France are to win a championship game in London for the first time since 2005 they are going to have to earn it.
Because, in all sorts of ways, this is a game England have been waiting for. The frantic early weeks of Steve Borthwick’s regime have been replaced by a more calculated, purposeful vibe. If they cannot beat the second highest-ranked team in the world, so be it. But at the very least they want to give it a proper go and, in doing so, give everyone a glimpse of what a more proactive future could look like.
It is a while since England last played with their mental handbrake fully off. Under Eddie Jones there was limited freedom and increasingly little clarity. Now there is only the present to worry about and nothing much to lose. Borthwick’s squad could, theoretically, still win this season’s title but the first priority is to make the absolute most of their last full-bore home fixture before this year’s World Cup.
The keynote selection of Marcus Smith at No 10, with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench for the first time in his Six Nations career, has underlined that intent. On a potentially drizzly, cold evening against a side who like to kick long, Farrell would previously have been a banker to start. This time England will be keener to keep the ball in play and, while not expecting all the fireworks to come from one man alone, are backing Smith to ignite the blue touchpaper.
If that rings a slight Anglo-French bell, there are distant echoes of this equivalent weekend in 2007 when England, having been thumped by Ireland in Croke Park, invited the less experienced Toby Flood and Shane Geraghty to breath fresh life into their attacking game against France in the absence of the injured Jonny Wilkinson and Andy Farrell, Owen’s dad. England’s newly appointed coach, Brian Ashton, as with Borthwick now, was on a mission to change his team’s mindset and, on a clear sunny day, England overcame a 12-9 first-half deficit to triumph 26-18. France were hosting a World Cup later that year as well and England, against expectations, ended up reaching the final. Sixteen years on, a red rose victory would encourage a growing feeling of dêja vu.
Exactly why the French have had such a barren record in London is a curiosity, particularly given the fact they took apart New Zealand in one of the all-time great World Cup knockout games on this very stretch of grass in 2007. They actually played well enough in patches on their last visit in 2021, with Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud scoring nice tries, only to lose 23-20 courtesy of a 76th-minute Maro Itoje try.
It was a different story in Paris last year when England could have lost by a hatful had France taken all their opportunities. This winter, though, Les Bleus have slowed slightly and teams have found there is mileage in keeping their big forwards moving. Ireland did it spectacularly well in Dublin but Italy and Scotland have also caused problems with an all-action game plan.
Which is why Smith’s sudden promotion has not come entirely out of nowhere. If France kick long they will be doing so to a player who specialises in launching attacks from deep and also has a splendid range of little chips and cross-kicks with which to turn defenders. It is untrue that all kicking is negative: the trick, however, is to kick well rather than aimlessly and to vary the diet as much as possible.
Equally there is little point picking Smith if his forwards cannot supply the quick ruck ball that will help him find and manipulate space. The scrum coach Richard Cockerill, who is heading back to France to work with Montpellier next season, has bumped into enough French packs in his time to know England will also have to stand firm at the set-piece. “The French see the forward battle as a game within itself, although hopefully it won’t be as dirty as when I played. I like the passion and the rawness about it. They love their forward play, not that the English don’t. If we are just going to go toe-to-toe with them, I think they will cope with that and we’ll potentially play ourselves into trouble. We’re going to have to be aggressive when we need to be and really smart when we need to be.”
It makes it a monumental game all round for Ellis Genge, leading his country for the first time. While France have had their issues at tight head the elevation of Dorian Aldegheri means the visitors will field an all-Toulouse front row with eight rouge et noir players in the starting lineup in total. Wherever they hail from, the priority must be to keep 15 French players on the field for the duration, with a red card against Scotland having undermined their power game.
Discipline will be equally critical for England, with Cockerill confident the increasingly mature Genge will keep his cool regardless of any provocation. The pair of them used to work together at Leicester – “At that point I was probably just happy to keep him out of trouble” – and the coach has always enjoyed Genge’s sharp sense of humour. “One day we were just leaving a forwards meeting in a bit of jovial mood. I said: ‘Gengey, do you want a fight?’ To which he replied: ‘Who’s going to coach the session afterwards?’”
France, though, will have been forewarned about what to expect by their defensive mentor Shaun Edwards, who will have been busy in the past fortnight having seen his side concede nine tries in their first three games.
The return of Jonathan Danty also gives Les Bleus renewed midfield punch, even if the absence of the injured Anthony Jelonch is a blow in terms of physicality. Momentum will be crucial, as will goal-kicking. And if it comes right down to the wire? In this most fluctuating of Six Nations seasons, who would bet against Farrell stepping up to slot the match-winning penalty?