Preview: England v France
Preview: England v FranceSHARE
Rarely can France have been in such need of a win at Twickenham as they will be when they try to salvage a flagging season by stopping England's bid for a Six Nations Grand Slam in its tracks on Saturday.
Pre-tournament favourites France, arguably just one refereeing decision away from winning the 2011 World Cup Final, are now bottom of the Six Nations table after defeats by Italy and Wales.
Yet for all it is a cliche, no side in world rugby has the capacity to go from the supine to sublime in the space of a couple of matches like 'Les Bleus'.
And much criticised coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who as a dashing France wing had a key role in some sensational Test tries, tried to rally his side by urging them to live up to the best traditions of French rugby
"The English will start favourites," he said. "We will have to show all our qualities of being French on Saturday — that means being brave, daring, unpredictable and to take the fight to them.
"When we are able to do that, we are able to pose problems for any team in the world."
It is 31 years since France had such a wretched start to a Championship and Saint-Andre has responded by making seven changes and a positional switch as they seek only an 11th win in what will be their 42nd match at Twickenham.
Significantly, Saint-Andre has recalled scrumhalf Morgan Parra, regarded by some judges as the best number nine in Europe, and fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc.
Out go Maxime Machenaud and the misfiring Frederic Michalak, picked at stand-off for the opening two matches even though he is playing inside former England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon.
Meanwhile the fact Wesley Fofana, one of the rising stars of world rugby, is back at centre having been on the wing, where the fit-again Vincent Clerc returns, suggests Saint-Andre has finally been won round to the idea of picking players in their specialist positions.
Up front, the return of hooker Benjamin Kayser, prop Thomas Domingo, flanker Yannick Nyanga and a debut for lock Christophe Simon should add some much needed strength in both scrum and loose to a previously insipid pack.
In seeing off Scotland by 20 points and then grinding out a 12-6 win against Ireland on a rainy day in Dublin, England have shown an ability to adapt to conditions that is a hallmark of the best sides.
Yet England coach Stuart Lancaster, who in December oversaw the stunning 38-21 victory over world champions New Zealand, has resisted the temptation to stick with a winning side.
Instead he has made three changes with only one, the inclusion of Courtney Lawes at blindside flanker in place of flu victim James Haskell, enforced.
The powerful Manu Tuilagi will start alongside defensive anchor Brad Barritt in England's midfield, with the subtler Billy Twelvetrees demoted to the bench, while in New Zealand-born hooker Dylan Hartley, Lancaster has gone for a bigger, heavier man" than former incumbent Tom Youngs.
Lawes is best known as an athletic lock but Lancaster said: "Courtney brings a lot more than line-out presence. Defensively he is one of our best players.
"France drive well at line-outs and we have good defensive options there to counter that in Courtney and Geoff Parling."
Lancaster hasn't said so directly, but he believes England are fitter than France and that this will tell when the replacements look to make an impact late in the match.
"The bench will add impact and energy as the game unfolds in the second half," said Lancaster, who nevertheless expects a "great challenge against a motivated and physical French team".
After their lacklustre showings in the opening two rounds, that is the very least France owe themselves and their supporters.
Players to watch:
For England: The return of Manusamoa Tuilagi in the midfield, at the expense of rookie Billy Twelvetrees has already caused considerable debate. Those who debated it and many others would like to see if Tuilagi is really that much better than the young Twelvetrees. Owen Farrell will again play a pivotal role, while Courtney Lawes on the flank is another selection that raised a few eyebrows.
For France: It has been all change in the French team, but the spotlight will shine brightest on the reinstated halfback pairing of Francois Trinh-Duc (at No.10) and Morgan Parra (No.9). Captain Thierry Dusautoir is always good value for money, while Benjamin Kayser at hooker is another interesting selection.
Head to head: While individual showdowns are always big between France and England, this game will be all about combinations – especially the new ones. There is the midfield battle – Manusamoa Tuilagi and Brad Barritt (England) against Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana (France), where pure power will overshadow guile and skill. More intriguing though will be the halfback contest between Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs (England) versus Francois Trinh-Duc and Morgan Parra (France), with kicking key.
2012: England won 24-22, Paris
2011: France won 19-12, Auckland (World Cup quarterfinal)
2011: England won 17-9, London
2010: France won 12-10, Paris
2009: England won 34-10, London
2008: England won 24-13, Paris
2007: England won 14-9, Paris (World Cup semifinal)
2007: France won 22-9, Marseille
2007: France won 21-15, London
2007: England won 26-18, London
Prediction: There is no doubt England are favourites. However, this is France they are playing – the most unpredictable team in the world. Who would have thought they would have come unstick against Italy as badly as they did? Perhaps only Italian fans. What we do know, is that France can bounce back at any time. However, we still feel England will sneak a brutal arm-wrestle – by less than 10 points.
England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manusamoa Tuilagi, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Mike Brown, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Tom Wood, 7 Chris Robshaw (captain), 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 David Wilson, 18 Mako Vunipola, 19 James Haskell, 20 Thomas Waldrom, 21 Danny Care, 22 Toby Flood, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.
France: 15 Yoann Huget, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Benjamin Fall, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Yannick Nyanga, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (captain), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Christophe Samson, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Luc Ducalcon, 19 Jocelino Suta, 20 Antonie Claassen, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Frederic Michalak, 23 Florian Fritz.
Date: Saturday, February 23
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 17.00 (17.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Continuing to be cold and generally cloudy, with the occasional light wintry shower – which will impact on the quality of the rugby. It will be a high of 4°C and a low of -2°C
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Jim Yuille (Scotland)
AFP & rugby365