England can lift the gloom and re-engage the nation if they put on a show today
ENGLAND will hurl themselves into the maelstrom of ‘Le Crunch’ today knowing that they have a timely opportunity to make a statement about the cross-Channel balance of power.
Rugby in this country has been on a downer and an encounter with title-holders France at Twickenham is the ideal, grand occasion for the national team to turn the tide of this rivalry.
As Premiership sides endure their own crunch of a financial kind, it is causing an exodus of English players to the Gallic game, which is held up as a beacon of wealth and prosperity — with success at Test and club level.
French trophy cabinets are stocked with the top prizes. Les Bleus are defending champions in the Six Nations after winning a Grand Slam last year, and La Rochelle and Lyon claimed the European cups. Rugby is riding a waving of popularity in France and later this year the country will host the World Cup — which is forecast to generate record profits and box-office attention.
Against that backdrop, England can prove this afternoon that there is not such a gulf between the Northern Hemisphere’s traditional superpowers. Ellis Genge, the new captain, and his teammates have a chance to show that it is not all darkness here and light over there. The game in this country needs a revivalist result and today might just be the day for it.
Steve Borthwick’s salvage operation will take on a different complexion if England can deny France their first championship win at Twickenham since 2005.
Remarkably, after defeat by Scotland in the first round, they could be in the title mix going to Dublin next weekend — not that such thoughts are given airtime in the England camp.
Yet, on this occasion, the result is not the be-all and end-all. English fans are mindful of the difficult context, so what they will crave is a performance that re-engages the nation. Plenty of people will be watching and hoping that England conjure a display that ignites interest, pride and excitement. Even a narrow defeat would be tolerated if they fire some shots and do not die wondering.
Borthwick has been bold with the selection of Marcus Smith, so let him play. There is no point picking an artist, confiscating his brushes and expecting him to create a masterpiece with a hammer. England will not attack from their own 22, but they must be given the licence to do so when it is on.
After a slow start to the new era, now is when it gets serious. This is relaunch phase two; the tricky bit, as England gear up to face the world’s No 2 side today, then the No 1 side in seven days’ time.
‘We’ll see where we’re at,’ said Genge, who also spoke about using ‘underdog psychology’. That is what England are — or certainly what they were. Before the championship began, this had the look of a grim assignment, a case of stepping into the path of a juggernaut being driven towards global glory by Fabien Galthie.
But the mood has shifted. The juggernaut has slowed. Ireland ended France’s winning streak, then Scotland came back from 19-0 down to the brink of a shock win against them in Paris. England will have genuine cause for optimism today.
Installing Genge as captain surely means there is no prospect of Borthwick’s team surrendering up front. If the pack play with the aggressive spirit of their new skipper, they will be at fever pitch, ready to meet the mighty French eight head-on.
England will need their talismans to stand up, so there will be an onus on Maro Itoje to return to the sort of personal peak last seen against Ireland a year ago. Genge and Ollie Lawrence will try to get Smith on the front foot by blasting over the gainline and they need Alex Dombrandt to add his weight to that effort. Flankers Jack Willis and Lewis Ludlam can disrupt French possession with breakdown and tackling tenacity.
The visitors have stuttered through this campaign but they have so much firepower. Jonathan Danty is back alongside Gael Fickou in a thunderous midfield axis. Charles Ollivon is a dynamo in the back row, Julien Marchand is a cannon-ball carrier and Cyril Baille has incredible handling skills for a prop — much like Kyle Sinckler. Further back lurk France’s X-factor gang: Romain Ntamack, the prolific Damian Penaud and the best of the lot, Antoine Dupont.
There must be a chance that all these stars will align at some stage and the danger for the hosts is that it happens today. But France are down to their third- choice tighthead, so there is scope for England to gain ascendancy in the set-piece and use it as a platform for Smith to dictate terms.
It feels like it is destined to be mighty close. It might come down to relative depth and this is where England appear to possess more trump cards.
Owen Farrell will burst off the bench to take charge and Borthwick can also call upon the electric Henry Arundell, the reassuring experience of Dan Cole and Mako Vunipola, and Alex Mitchell — who has been sparky and threatening in his recent cameos.
England can win and that would be a stunning feat given how far they had fallen. But win or lose, they can illuminate the darkness, if they have a go — a real go. No regrets.