England’s veteran hooker Steve Thompson expects to be at the epicentre of a brutal battle with the French pack in today’s World Cup quarter-final showdown.
Former Leeds Carnegie hooker Thompson will scrum down with his head between William Servat, who is widely regarded as the best hooker in Europe, and ferocious tight-head Nicolas Mas.
England have named five forwards on their bench for the first time in the World Cup.
For all the game-changing abilities of such as Aurelien Rougerie or Manu Tuilagi – England’s bench selection is a clear indication of where manager Martin Johnson thinks the game will be won.
There are few sterner challenges in the global game for a hooker and Thompson is relishing the prospect of locking horns with Les Bleus.
“You know what’s coming when you play the French – they are always physical and don’t take a backward step. We know we’ve got to be on top of our game to compete with them,” said Thompson.
“It’s going to be physical – in the scrums, lineout and mauls, in the rucks, they’re going to be chucking themselves around and that’s what we’ve got to do.
“That’s probably why we’ve gone with the bench that we have. I don’t think anyone is surprised by it.”
England, as they have done through the ages, pride themselves on their scrum and a desire to keep it off the ground and going forward.
Matt Stevens has struggled at loose-head on his last two starts and faces an immense challenge to keep Mas square, to stop him driving in on Thompson and upsetting the balance.
England manager Johnson expects a purer scrummaging contest against France than they experienced against Scotland.
“We have a very good scrum and a very clean scrum. We have had few penalties in that area of the game,” said Johnson.
“We want to scrummage, the French want to scrummage and it is a key battle for us. Last week, Scotland were happy to chance their arm with the referee. They put the scrum on the floor and took their chances, frankly.
“I am not blaming the referee, it is about as hard a thing to referee as there is. There were times we weren’t accurate enough, either.
“We need to do things better so there is no doubt.”
Thompson, who missed the 2007 World Cup after retiring temporarily with a neck injury, will have an important role in England stamping their authority on the set piece.
The 33-year-old has regained the hooker’s jersey from Dylan Hartley thanks to a stellar year with Leeds and scrum coach Graham Rowntree said: “He’s a strong character, a big voice around the squad and he’s been around the block.
“Steve is in the shape of his life. He’s going to be important to us in this game, because we have to draw on all our experience to make the referee’s job easier, to ensure he has easy decisions to make.
“That means getting our engagement right, our shape right, and giving him a clear picture of the dominance we’re establishing.
“That’s been our problem in a couple of matches, especially last week when we conceded four scrum penalties in the first half.
“Four in one half, when we gave away only seven in the whole Six Nations? Unacceptable. We can’t have that.”
France head coach Marc Lievremont, meanwhile, believes everyone is against England today.
Lievremont says England’s unpopularity invokes a siege mentality which makes them difficult to beat.
“Of course the rivalry still exists between us, but when it comes to the English I think it exists with all the nations in the world – if I’m to believe all the messages of support from the New Zealanders, the Argentinians and the Australians that we come across in the street,” Lievremont said.
“They are united against them (England), but that’s also what makes them strong, this ability to surpass themselves, to unite together against the rest of the world.”
France are seeking to avoid World Cup elimination at the hands of England for the third successive tournament, having lost to their perennial rivals at the semi-final stage in 2003 and 2007.
But Lievremont takes confidence from the Six Nations-winning campaign 18 months ago, when Les Bleus came from behind to win 12-10 in Paris.
He added: “The French have never really done that well against England in matches where there’s a lot at stake, even though our squad managed to do it to win the Grand Slam in 2010, when we were trailing against England and found the resources to come back.”
Following a fraught tournament so far, France captain Thierry Dusautoir has urged his side to deliver, saying: “The important thing is our actions, not our words.”
Les Bleus’ camp has been an unhappy one, but Dusautoir hopes the promises made in a clear-the-air drinking session following last week’s 19-14 loss to Tonga will ring true against their familiar foes at Eden Park.
Dusautoir said: “The essential thing is what we will do (today), not what has been said. I want to see a team that fights. What has really changed is everybody’s commitment ahead of this weekend’s match.
“I hope we can walk off with a big smile on our faces and make our fans happy, with the feeling that we’ve given our all.
“Everyone is aware of the importance of this match and wants to continue the adventure. “We need to keep believing we’re a good team, a strong team and to give joy to the people.”
Historically France have proved capable of radically improved performances within the space of a week – or as Les Bleus’ English defence coach Dave Ellis put it this week, “they are quite capable of having an off day and then going from basement to penthouse in seven days”.
Dusautoir added: “We failed against Tonga, it was a very sad moment. I was very sad to see the French team in this state.
“We need to find the right blend and to be as determined as possible.”