By Duncan Bech, PA England Rugby Correspondent
England and France clash for the 110th time in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations showdown at Twickenham.
Here, the PA news agency examines five talking points as both sides aim to stay in contention for the title heading into the final round.
Steve Borthwick has named our side for #ENGvFRA on Saturday 🌹@O2 | #WearTheRose
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 9, 2023
No one is safe – that was the clear message issued by Steve Borthwick when he made the seismic decision to drop his captain Owen Farrell to the bench and install Marcus Smith at fly-half in his place.
Under Borthwick’s predecessor Eddie Jones there was a group of untouchables, players who would be retained whatever the circumstances, but with Farrell following Manu Tuilagi and Ben Youngs in being marginalised, England’s new head coach has amply demonstrated his ruthlessness in selection.
Need for speed
Borthwick explained his thinking by stating Smith was the best option to execute England’s high-tempo gameplan for ‘Le Crunch’, which is designed to tire out France’s gargantuan pack. Italy took Les Bleus to the wire in round one by playing at pace and England will employ a similar strategy.
Expect Smith to inject speed at every opportunity, using his attacking instincts and reflexes to keep the Grand Slam champions moving, as well as patrolling the backfield to launch counter-attacks off their long kicking game.
Stage set for Smith
🌹 Smith returns to the starting XV to face France this weekend with Dombrandt in the number eight jersey and Walker completing the Harlequins trio 🙌
🌍 International team news delivered by @dhlexpressuk#COYQ
— Harlequins 🃏 (@Harlequins) March 9, 2023
While Borthwick moulds his team according to the opposition, Smith will sense that at Twickenham he has the opportunity to make the 10 jersey his own. The electric 24-year-old stands apart as an attacking fly-half and has the potential to ignite England, but he must also display the generalship possessed by Farrell and George Ford, his more experienced rivals for the position.
Having been previously forced to work within a creative axis alongside Farrell at inside centre, stifling his natural game, he is now able to launch a balanced midfield duo of Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade. The stage is set for the young Harlequin, now he must deliver.
Smith will need to show steel in defence because a storm is coming down his channel – France juggernaut Jonathan Danty. The 5ft 11in, 17st 5lbs centre makes his first appearance since the autumn having recovered from a knee injury with the most recent outing of a three-game comeback for La Rochelle against Pau last weekend evidence of a player who has already found his stride.
While able to punch holes in defence through brute force alone, he also has slick footwork, a surprising turn of pace and a clever offloading game. Lawrence will line up directly opposite Danty and – with England’s inside centre in marauding form – it promises to be a collision to savour.
🎙️ “One of the most sensational tries Twickenham has ever seen!”
An absolute classic from @FranceRugby‘s Philippe Saint-André in 1991.#ENGvFRA | #GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/AE18OdyFtF
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 10, 2023
France may have undergone a welcome revival over the last three years, but one destination victory eludes them. In fact, the last time they prevailed at Twickenham in the Six Nations was back in 2005 when Tony Blair was still Prime Minister, U2 were at number one in the singles charts and YouTube was founded. That losing sequence has produced some classics with the fixture rarely failing to deliver, but France will be determined to finally end their London drought before hosting the World Cup later this year. Adding jeopardy for both teams is the knowledge that with one defeat apiece entering the penultimate round, neither can afford to lose again if they are to win the title.