GIVEN the prize at stake, wary England captain Kevin Sinfield is expecting France to have saved their best performance for some time for tonight’s World Cup quarter-final.
Although the hosts are huge favourites to progress in Wigan considering it is more than 30 years since France last defeated them, the Leeds Rhinos stand-off is mindful of their latent threat.
Richard Agar’s side only scraped into the knockout stages courtesy of the narrowest of wins over Papua New Guinea and have since succumbed heavily to New Zealand as well as losing to Samoa.
But, with the competition now into its knockout phase, Sinfield said: “A lot of teams have been finding their feet a bit in the group stages. We are certainly looking to improve this week against a French side we know a lot about.
“We watched them on Monday against Samoa and we play against the majority of their side in Super League.
“We know how tough they can be physically and we’ll certainly be prepared for the best French team we’ve seen for a long time.”
Sinfield was still just a baby when France last won against England, a 5-1 triumph ironically on his home turf of Headingley in 1981.
They have lost 15 consecutive fixtures against the English since, the last of which was an 48-4 defeat at Salford 12 months ago.
It is unthinkable that England’s dominance could be broken this evening and Sinfield is hoping it will be his side that goes from strength to strength after encouraging wins over Ireland and Fiji.
After last night’s emphatic 40-4 win over Scotland at Leeds, New Zealand await the victors in the semi-finals at Wembley in a week.
Sinfield, 33, admitted: “It certainly ramps up now for everybody. We know it’s do or die.
“Thankfully, we’ve got a load of guys in our team that have been though the play-off system recently. I know they have it in the NRL, but a larger majority of our squad have been involved in the play-off system over the last couple of years than probably most other teams.
“They’re used to this sort of football and we’ve got plenty of Wigan boys who have been great in the Challenge Cup and the play-offs.
“We’re looking forward to it. We know how tough the French game is going to be and hopefully moving forward what could lie in wait could be really exciting.”
Though publicly not discussing that prospect, privately England are acutely aware they have to improve significantly once more this evening in order to build towards finding the requisite level of performance to challenge the Kiwis next Saturday.
Sinfield’s half-back partnership with Rangi Chase is prospering after plenty of criticism about their credentials before the tournament began.
They will look to click again this evening and seek the cohesiveness and ingenuity that will be needed for the challenges of New Zealand and, potentially, Australia ahead.
“No matter who plays in the halves for England, I think they are going to get criticised,” Sinfield said.
“But I really enjoy playing alongside Rangi. He can do some special things, he is really gifted and his head’s in the right place.
“He is a fantastic player and we’ve got a brilliant relationship, which is just getting better every week. We’re learning more about each other and the link between the halves, hooker and Sam Tomkins at full-back is getting better every week.
“I don’t look at what’s in the media, what matters is what the squad and the coaching staff think about how we’re going. Rangi has played very well and I think our partnership is going well too.”
England coach Steve McNamara confirmed after yesterday’s final captain’s run at DW Stadium that Wigan Warriors winger Josh Charnley will start after coming back into the squad at the expense of Leeds-bound Hull FC player Tom Briscoe.
Super League’s top try-scorer had been left out of the last two games since appearing in the opening 28-20 loss to Australia in Cardiff.
McNamara would not reveal anything else about his line-up – the only other change to the 19-man squad is James Roby replacing Leeds Rhinos’ Carl Ablett – but did confirm Huddersfield Giants centre Leroy Cudjoe would play after becoming a father for the first time on Thursday.
France chief Agar, meanwhile, believes England are good enough to win the World Cup even though the Featherstone-born Wakefield Trinity Wildcats coach is trying to bring them down.
“It’s been really easy for people to maybe concentrate on some of the negative things that have happened in the camp,” he said.
“But, if they’ve had 20 per cent negatives, they’ve had 80 per cent positives.
“I do think they have got better throughout the tournament.
“They’re really well structured and they’ve got some world-class players.
“I think they’re capable on the day, if they get their best performance out, of beating Australia or New Zealand.
“I want France to progress. If we do, it will be one of the biggest turn-ups you’ve ever seen in international football, I would imagine, if you’re looking down the roster at the teams.
“But, at the same time, if England were to go on and produce a victory, I think it would be the best thing that could possibly happen for Super League and rugby in this country and in France.”
Captain Olivier Elima returns after resting an injury against Samoa while threequarters Damien Cardace and Younes Khattabi make their tournament bows.
New Zealand rout Scotland at Headingley: Page 6.