SIX NATIONS: The green shoots of an attack-minded England were sown 11 months ago in Paris and Martin Johnson’s side will get the chance to show just how far they have come since then when they host France this evening in a fixture that will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the Six Nations Championship.
England and France are unbeaten and the winner at Twickenham will have one hand on the trophy and the grand slam with just two games to go.
The French have stuttered their way to a 100 per cent start while Johnson’s England are growing with every game.
On that March night in Paris last year, England were beaten by the boot of Morgan Parra but it was a fixture that marked the beginning of a more expansive style of play from the Red Rose that blossomed against Australia at headquarters last November.
Hard-fought victories over the Wallabies in Sydney and Wales in Cardiff three weeks ago have pointed to a more rounded, robust and explosive England who are finding their feet at the right time in the evolution of a World Cup year.
Victory today will be another step on the road to a strengthening belief that this could be England’s year.
With the attacking focus built around the dynamic half-back partnership of Ben Youngs and Toby Flood, plus the free-running backline of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto, there are calls from England fans and pundits alike for them to continue playing without inhibitions, as they began to do in Paris all those months ago.
“England cannot go away from the way they’ve played so far,” said Neil Back, the Leeds Carnegie head coach and former England No 7.
“And that is with ambition, no hesitation in the contact area and some excellent finishing.
“They put in a fantastic performance against Italy and they’re taking that confidence and belief that winning brings, into France. And they need all of that confidence against a very tough French team.”
Marc Lievremont’s side may occupy the alien position of underdogs today considering they have won their last eight games in the competition but they remain a formidable foe.
Their back division of Vincent Clerc, Dimitri Yachvili and Yannick Jauzion when on song is one of the most devastating in world rugby.
Yet as ever with the mercurial French, an off-day can lead to an embarrassing unravelling of their talents, as occurred at the Stade de France against Australia three months ago, and on their last visit to Twickenham two years ago when they conceded four tries in the first half en route to a 24-point defeat.
That was their last defeat in the tournament, and despite the bravado and anti-English rhetoric from Lievremont in the build-up, the fact that he has made six changes to the side that edged out Ireland two weeks ago, suggests the belief in the squad is not as strong as it has been.
Contrastingly, England are benefitting from a settled team. Only an injury and subsequent return for Andrew Sheridan has forced Johnson to change the side captained by Otley-born centre Mike Tindall, with Alex Corbisiero dropping back to the bench for ‘Le Crunch’.
Johnson believes today’s game present the perfect opportunity to exorcise those Paris ghosts.
“It was my most disappointing defeat,” he concedes.
In Chris Ashton, however, Johnson has a player who has scored six times in victories over Wales and Italy and he needs just one more to break the Six Nations record.
“I will just keep doing what I am doing. There is nothing you can say about it, there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Ashton.
“I don’t know what the French are thinking but if they want to track me, then it is perfect for us.
“If you do that, you are going to leave a hole somewhere else. I can only see it creating opportunities elsewhere for the other players in this team. If chances keep arising and the team is playing well then I am sure I will keep scoring tries.”
England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tindall (Gloucester, capt), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Wood (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Francais), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: S Thompson (Leeds), A Corbisiero (London Irish), S Shaw (Wasps), H Fourie (Leeds), D Care (Harlequins), J Wilkinson (Toulon), M Banahan (Bath).
France: M Medard (Toulouse); Y Huget (Bayonne), A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), V Clerc (Toulouse); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), D Yachvili (Biarritz); T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), W Servat (Toulouse), N Mas (Perpignan), J Pierre (Clermont Auvergne), L Nallet (Racing Metro), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz), S Chabal (Racing Metro). Replacements: G Guirado (Perpignan), S Marconnet (Biarritz), J Thion (Biarritz), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), M Parra (Clermont Auvergne), D Traille (Biarritz), C Poitrenaud (Toulouse).
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).