England will seek to confirm their remarkable transformation from World Cup flops to Six Nations Grand Slam winners when they take on France on Saturday.
Now coached by Australian Eddie Jones, who masterminded Japan’s three victories at last year’s World Cup (including one over the mighty South Africa), the English have seen off Scotland (15-9), Italy (40-9), Ireland (21-10) and Wales (25-21).
That string of four victories gave Jones a Six Nations title at the first time of asking, so ending England’s run of four successive runners-up finishes under former coach Stuart Lancaster.
A victory at the Stade de France on Saturday, with the kick-off set for 2000 GMT, would go a step further by handing England a first Grand Slam since their World Cup-winning year of 2003, when Jones was in charge of losing finalists Australia.
“We’ve won the championship, but the job feels half done for us at the moment,” said Jones, whose side has contrived to botch four other occasions to nab a Grand Slam since the Five Nations became Six in 2000.
“If we want to get better as a team, if we want to be the most dominant side in Europe, we’ve got to beat France.”
Jones made two changes to his team, bringing in prop Mako Vunipola and scrum-half Danny Care for benched duo Joe Marler and Ben Youngs.
Marler’s inclusion comes amid a furore after the Harlequins player escaped sanction for calling Wales’ Samson Lee a “gypsy boy” last weekend, opening a debate over whether what the Welsh player dubbed on-field banter should in fact have been acted upon as racist abuse.
– France scuppered –
France’s 29-18 defeat by Scotland in Edinburgh last weekend scuppered their title hopes, coach Guy Noves responding by calling up back-row forwards Loann Goujon and Bernard Le Roux into his starting side at the expense of Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret in a bid to beef up his pack.
But Noves insisted he had been right not to introduce wholesale changes to his side that opened the campaign with wins over Italy (23-21) and Ireland (10-9) before going down to Wales (19-10) and the Scots.
Despite accusing his team of making “stupid mistakes” against Scotland, Noves said he had been “stubborn”.
“It’s not the fact that we were beaten by Scotland that we’re going to have a change of heart,” the ex-Toulouse coach said.
“What concerns us is that we have a goal which is to advance in our rugby, that’s what’s important. On the pitch we’re working on our game, but on the side we need to look at ourselves clinically and see what we can react to immediately.”
Jones predicted that the French would come out with all guns firing at their home ground.
“The French are going to be doing their absolute utmost to make sure we don’t win,” he said.
“France’s best 20 minutes are going to be their first, they have got to get into the game in that first 20 minutes.
“We’ve got to be good enough to cope with it, 100 percent. We’ve got to be able to meet their physicality and then move them around.”
But ultimately, Jones was confident.
“I think we’re the better team and we have to believe we’re the better team,” he said.
“If you go into Grand Slam games thinking you’re not the better team you are going to get beaten and we have to think we are the better team and put it on the paddock.
“France away for a Grand Slam is a great test. The first 20 minutes is going to be a good physical test but it’s a great mental test. It is a really good test and then we’ve got some bigger hurdles to jump going forwards.” – Agence France-Presse