Posts Tagged ‘Le Crunch’

The Six Nations – the jewel of the Northern Hemisphere rugby crown – begins on Saturday. It is a competition with a tremendously rich history, originally contested by the four “Home Nations” – England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland – beginning in 1883. France joined the tournament in 1910, and the Five Nations was passionately contested for the rest of the 20th century. 2000 saw the addition of Italy to make up the current field of six teams.

The format could not be simpler – each team plays every other team once. (The venues rotate each year – so the three teams that have three home games this year will have only two next year, and vice-versa.) There are no bonus points for scoring four tries in a match or losing a match by fewer than seven points. Wales are the two-time defending champions, and are seeking to make history by becoming the first team ever to win three consecutive tournaments outright. England will be a strong contender, as will France – despite, amazingly, finishing bottom in last year’s edition. Ireland are being labeled dark horses by some, but the reality is they are just a damn good side who will be a handful for any other team in the tournament. As usual, Scotland and Italy are not considered serious contenders, but they are both improving and are capable of knocking off any of the favorites, especially at home. So it promises to be another thrilling six weeks of rugby.

France v England is the match everyone is looking forward to this weekend, so it seems appropriate to begin by profiling these two bitter rivals.

Saturday February 1, 12 PM Eastern – Stade de France, Paris

It has become a truism, but people are going to keep writing it until is no longer true – no one ever knows which French team is going to turn up. They are capable of brilliance and incompetence, often in the same half of rugby! The French will be without their talismanic captain Thierry Dusautoir for the entirety of the tournament, which is a huge blow. He is a world-class flanker and a strong leader, and his absence adds to the uncertainty surrounding the French team. The stand-in captain will be lock Pascal Pape, who leads a strong French pack renowned for its technical scrimmaging ability. In the back row, clubmates Yannick Nyanga and Louis Picamoles have been in good form for Toulouse, so I would expect French coach Philippe Saint-Andre to pick either Bernard Le Roux or Damien Chouly in Dusautoir’s place, depending on what type of back row balance he is looking for.

In the backs, selection is a bit trickier. It looks like Jean-Marc Doussain will play scrumhalf, although he has recently played at flyhalf for Toulouse. Maxime Machenaud is the other option at 9. At flyhalf, Remi Tales is injured, so it is a question of whether Saint-Andre takes a gamble on the uncapped Jules Plisson, or goes with the experience of Francois Trinh-Duc, who has played 48 Test matches for France.  The other big question mark is at outside center – will Saint-Andre pick the skill of Gael Fickou or the size of Mathieu Bastareaud in the 13 jersey?

England are at a crossroads. Everything is in the context of the ultimate prize – winning next year’s World Cup on home soil. The English pack have shown they have the quality to do just that, but the backs have simply not posed the necessary threat. The key decision facing coach Stuart Lancaster is whether to persevere with the players he has come to trust, or whether to try some new faces in hopes of providing the spark that has been sorely lacking. Owen Farrell seems to have the 10 jersey locked up due to his defensive and kicking abilities, despite his worrying inability (thus far) to threaten the gainline or release his outside backs. Mike Brown has not put a foot wrong at fullback – the 15 jersey is his. And Billy Twelvetrees will likely start at inside center in lieu of a better option. But the other four backline spots – scrumhalf, outside center, and the two wings – are up for grabs. England legend and current BBC pundit Jeremy Guscott recently suggested in the Rugby Paper that Danny Care, Luther Burrell, Anthony Watson, and Jonny May were “likely” to fill these positions. I hope Guscott is right, because that is an incredibly positive backline that achieves what good coaches should strive to do: reward players based on form, and be willing to select the most talented players even if they lack international experience.

To the French, the English are “Les Rosbifs” – to the English, the French are “the Frogs.”  And on both sides of the English Channel, this match is “Le Crunch.” Bring it on!

If Dusautoir were playing, I would see the match dead even – that’s how important he is to France. Without him, England by 3

Below, highlights from the last time these two teams played in Paris, in 2012: