Six Nations Tournament: England face a France on fire


The final Six Nations weekend is a second-screen experience. Log out of the phone and fire up the calculator, as the calculations, as always, might get messy.

France’s victory earned them the title.

A victory for Ireland earlier in the day brings draws and bonus points into the equation for France.

The points difference is perhaps still Ireland’s trump card.

England fans will ask different questions, however – calculations with less obvious answers and longer-term implications.

Staying within a score of this dashing French team would it be a moral victory?

Is a winning percentage of just over 50% over the last three Six Nations campaigns enough?

How many more knocks can England take before faith in head coach Eddie Jones is beyond repair?

Jones can hear the rumble on the horizon.

“After the game, those kinds of discussions can take place,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live on Thursday.

“We feel that we are progressing well as a team. We would prefer to play for the title, but that is not the case, but we feel that the team is progressing well.”

It can only be a “feeling”. The numbers are not there.

England could find themselves on Sunday night with a second consecutive fifth-place finish for the first time in Six Nations history.

They would need to score five tries against France to match even last year’s meager tally of 12.

There have been glimpses of what could be. England have given hints of the brilliance of their backline and coal spirit over the past year.

When Freddie Steward cut to the line against Australia in the fallwe saw how the attack could work.

When the bloody spirit of 14 men made up the number against Ireland last week, the talk of a new level of team unity rang true.

But moments are for showreels. Tournaments reveal teams. The Six Nations is an in-depth examination that takes teams into enemy territory and dark places. And once again, England are back among the laggards.

Jones has his defense. He is an expert in preparing teams to reach the heights of the Rugby World Cups.

England finished fifth in the 2018 Six Nations, the equivalent tournament to this last cycle, before advancing to the final in Yokohama 18 months later.

A plan that had been in the making for more than a year came to fruition when he orchestrated Japan’s victory over the Springboks in 2015.

He was among the behind-the-scenes staff that guided South Africa to the trophy in 2007. A little-known Australia pushed England deep into the 2003 final in their first run at the tournament.

France 2023 rarely escapes Jones’ mind. Even this week he mentioned it. England’s arrival in Paris on Tuesday was meant to give them a taste of the host nation ahead of the 2023 tournament, apparently.

Six Nations of England
Saturday February 5 20-17 defeat against Scotland (A)
Sunday February 13 Beat Italy 33-0 (A)
Saturday February 26 Beat Wales 23-19 (H)
Saturday March 12 Lost 32-15 against Ireland (H)
Saturday March 19 France (A)

There are also extenuating circumstances. The original plan to play Owen Farrell at center as a stabilizing hand and second pair of eyes for rookie flyhalf Marcus Smith was shattered by injury.

The ram power of Manu Tuilagi, a midfield option so easy to play and so difficult to defend, was also lost.

But, still, the doubts are deep. The suggestion is that Jones fumbled a succession plan, that the transition between two eras was too awkward.

With a pool of Premiership depth players at his disposal, should only four of the 10 starting wings over the course of the tournament have been position specialists? Steward is the latest to trade after Joe Marchant, Max Malins and Tuilagi have tried for the past 12 months.

Mark Atkinson, Ollie Lawrence and Paolo Odogwu came to camp offering something the current centers don’t. All left without an extended run in the team.

There is no clear preferred option at number eight, scrum half or hooker.

The team selected to face France is from left field. George Furbank arrives from the desert to start at fullback, a role he hasn’t filled since October 2020. Will the apparent shrill U-turn to heavy kicking strategy last only a night? Or a more permanent reversion?

The contrast is striking.

There is no fog around France. They come to you in high definition. Relentless forward thrusts, a rapier propels a wide, tight defense and a proven set of substitutes ready to slot on the touchline.

Furbank’s surprise selection appears to signal a tactical U-turn from England

A golden generation, who won the World Under-20 Championship in 2018 and 2019, spawned a feel-good factor. TV ratings are up, trust is high, the plan is clear; win the Grand Slam this year, win the World Cup next.

England’s goals are more modest. Trophies are not on the menu at the moment. In form, to match France for most of the game, in most areas, would be a decent comeback.

Sacking the Stade de France, reversing the odds, potentially throwing the title to Ireland, would be one of the big wins of Jones’ fate in charge. A result to rub shoulders with in the semi-final winner of the All Blacks in 2019. A categorical response to critics and skeptics.

Everything else and the questions only become more insistent.


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William D. Babcock

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