Marcus Smith recall gives England v France added spice
Friday’s England captain’s run at Twickenham was led by Ellis Genge (left) for the first time
England v France is not nicknamed ‘Le Crunch’ by coincidence.
The 2023 edition of this fierce rivalry between two heavyweights of northern hemisphere rugby sees both sides needing to avoid defeat to maintain their Six Nations title challenge.
France, the reigning champions, are favourites to end their 18-year wait for a win at Twickenham but England fans may be arriving at HQ on Saturday with a spring in their step.
Steve Borthwick has made just one change to the side that beat Wales in their last outing, but it is one which World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward described as a “great call”.
The exciting Marcus Smith is tasked with bringing attacking flair at fly-half as he steps in for captain Owen Farrell.
Smith started the defeat against Scotland, with Farrell deployed at inside centre, but the combination failed to set the game alight.
Farrell’s pragmatism has been favoured to steer the ship since then, but despite victories against Italy and Wales, Smith has been recalled to the starting XV after impressing on club duty last weekend.
Smith is capable of penetrating any defence with his acceleration and dead-eye distribution, while the physicality and hard running lines of Ollie Lawrence at 12 should help the Harlequins star play to his strengths.
‘Farrell’s experience on the bench is invaluable’
Farrell will be disappointed not to start against Les Blues but Borthwick says the 31-year-old, who has won 104 caps, will have a key role to play off the bench.
France and their talisman Antoine Dupont are expecting no less.
“Smith is a player who enjoys the attacking game, he’s great at the one-on-ones,” the France skipper said.
“He might not have as much control over the game as Farrell, but having Farrell’s experience on the bench is invaluable. It’s a massive asset.
“At this level, the final minutes of the game are very important so having Farrell come off the bench is great for them.
“A team’s strategy doesn’t change just because of one player. Both Smith and Farrell know how to fit within what is asked of the coach and the group.
“We know they’ll be leaning towards the kicking game, they enjoy putting their opponent under pressure.
“Smith knows how to do it and he might be more dangerous than Farrell. Farrell is better defensively. They have different profiles but can be complementary at the end of the game.”
Owen Farrell (centre) will start on the bench on Saturday
Genge to lead England in Farrell’s absence
As well as Smith, Ellis Genge is also a beneficiary of Farrell’s initial absence.
The prop will lead the side for the first time against France after being promoted from vice-captain, and no one is more pleased than England forwards coach Richard Cockerill.
When asked if he foresaw Genge’s transition from talented youngster to England captain Cockerill, who signed the prop when he was Leicester Tigers coach, said: “He was a really aggressive young man, young player, with a lot of natural ability who just needed a little bit of guidance in how to channel it.
- Genge’s rise from rough diamond to England captain
“I probably at that point was just happy to keep him out of trouble,” said a laughing Cockerill.
“Ellis has matured and developed really well. He’s worked really hard at his game both on and off the field and he’s matured into a great person and he’s a wonderful player.”
Cockerill will leave the England set-up to join French side Montpellier as forwards coach after the tournament, and he says Saturday’s game will give his current side a chance to test themselves against a strong pack.
“I like the passion and the rawness about French rugby,” he said. “They love their forward play – not that the English don’t – but that appeals to me having played there myself.
“We know what physical attributes they bring, they’re a big team. Tactically they’re very good, but we like to think we’re a physical team as well and it’s a great opportunity for us to test our set-piece.
“We’re going to have to be aggressive when we need to be and really smart when we need to be.
“The French have a great love for the game, the forward battle they see as a game within itself, so we hope there’s a little bit of that and hopefully it won’t be as dirty as when I played.”
France aiming to end Twickenham curse
France won the Grand Slam last year and are the number two side in the world.
Fabien Galthie’s side won every game in 2022 and arrive at Twickenham having lost just once in their last 16 Tests.
But there is one unwanted record they will want to end on Saturday. France have not won away against England in the Six Nations since 2005.
Both sides need bonus-point victories to keep their title credentials alive, or unbeaten Ireland can secure the Six Nations trophy with the full five points in Edinburgh.
Defeat for either side will end their challenge, but if Scotland can upset the world number one team, they too will stand a chance of victory on the final day.
Calculators at the ready.