Forward threat is England’s best route to success

England's forwards coach Graham Rowntree. Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA.
England's forwards coach Graham Rowntree. Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA.
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AS a British Lion and former England prop with more than 50 caps, Graham Rowntree knows all about the sheer brutality and physicality of life at the very top of international rugby.

So, when he says that facing a French pack is one of the “toughest” tests any player can face, you know he isn’t simply paying lip-service to England’s opponents this evening.

Rowntree, now one of Stuart Lancaster’s trusted lieutenants but once a gnarled operator in Leicester’s famed front-row, is tasked with ensuring the hosts win that essential battle up front against Les Bleus.

If they do, they crucially give themselves the opportunity to win an elusive Six Nations title.

The many permutations are now well-documented with leaders England, Ireland and Wales all tied on six points heading into today’s final round of staggered fixtures.

Nevertheless, England – with the best points difference and playing in the final game, thus knowing just what they need to achieve – are in the box seat.

First Wales journey to Italy hoping to completely vanquish the Azzurri to put pressure on England – they trail the Red Rose by 25 points – before Ireland, just four points adrift, head to Scotland knowing their chances of glory are much greater.

But Rowntree does not concern himself with those possibilities, issues out of his control; all he can do is prime his pack to be ready to overcome their Gallic foes.

“France’s pack are always a challenge,” said the forwards coach, who would have relished such an opportunity as this in his heyday.

“They’re always a real test. You don’t get many tougher tests as a forward than playing against a French pack. Last weekend they used their size to their advantage against Italy.

“They scrummed well against Italy and drove well.

“There aren’t many teams doing that to Italy at the moment and I’ve no doubt they’ll come to Twickenham looking to do the same to us.

“Two years ago we were lucky to win here. They played exceptionally well and that was a really tough day at the office for us up front.

“The forward battle is just one battle we’ll have to win.

“There is a real hunger and determination about the players this week. Any French team that comes to Twickenham is a handful, regardless of what’s riding on the game.”

Italy and Scotland will not simply roll over, however, as the Six Nations draws to a dramatic close.

“I’m not sure about the other games. Obviously we’ll have an eye on them, but it’s about us,” Rowntree said.

“It’s an overused phrase, but this game is all about us and our performance.

“We’ve focused on that all week and the guys have performed really well in training.

“There has been a real bite to training.

“We’ve had to train smart – it’s about leaving plenty in the tank for a big performance.

“We have to make the most of France having had a six-day turn around and certainly we’ve looked after the guys this week. We’ve trained sharply.

“There is a real hunger to perform well and take our chances.

“We were a bit frustrated that we didn’t do that when we should have done against Scotland and everyone can see that.”

England have made one change to their starting XV with Geoff Parling replacing Dave Attwood in the second row, while Nick Easter returns to the bench.

“It was a very tough decision to drop Dave because he’s been very good for us,” said Rowntree.

“His performance against Wales was outstanding but Geoff brings experience and leadership at the line-out while Nick has been great coming back into this group; he gives us flexibility covering three positions and raw horsepower off the bench.”

England: M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), L Burrell (Northampton), J Nowell (Exeter); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), G Parling (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), J Haskell (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements: T Youngs (Leicester), M Vunipola (Saracens), K Brookes (Newcastle), N Easter (Harlequins), T Wood (Northampton), R Wigglesworth (Saracens), D Cipriani (Sale Sharks), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester).

France: S Spedding (Bayonne); Y Huget (Toulouse), G Fickou (Toulouse), M Mermoz (Toulon), N Nakaitaci (Clermont Auvergne); J Plisson (Stade Francais), S Tillous-Borde (Toulon); V Debaty (Clermont Auvergne), G Guirado (Toulon), N Mas (Montpellier), A Flanquart (Stade Francais), Y Maestri (Toulouse), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, captain), B Le Roux (Racing Metro), L Goujon (La Rochelle). Replacements: B Kayser (Clermont Auvergne), R Slimani (Stade Francais), U Atonio (La Rochelle), R Taofifenua (Toulon), D Chouly (Clermont Auvergne), R Kockott (Castres), R Tales (Castres), M Bastareaud (Toulon).

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales). Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland) and Leighton Hodges (Wales).