If you look at the England team Eddie Jones has picked to face France, it does not take an expert to work out that the ball is going to see a lot of air time on Saturday. What fascinates me, however, is how different both sides’ approaches are to kicking and whichever side can impose their particular style will go a long way towards winning the contest.
Jones has picked George Furbank at full-back, which may have come as a surprise to some because he had a difficult time on his debut at the Stade de France two years ago and because Freddie Steward is so reliable under the high ball. France, however, really don’t kick to compete that much. They kick long, they want to lure their opponents into running the ball back, when they back themselves to turn the ball over, or they want to engage in a game of kick tennis, when they can be lethal if their opponents do not execute properly. As a result, Furbank’s decision-making will be key, and significantly more important than his ability to claim the ball in the air.
To illustrate, Stuart Hogg carried the ball 14 times in Scotland’s defeat by France. For those carries he made only 14 metres post-contact, which tells me that a lot of the problem was bad decision-making. The problem, though, is that France have scored seven of their 14 tries from receiving kicks, which hints at why Hogg would have been reluctant to kick deep. The key, then, is for England to make good decisions and execute their contestable kicks.
Throughout the tournament, from 37 box-kicks or up-and-unders on their ball France have retained only one. Of the 45 that they’ve received, they’ve failed to gather one in four. That tells me that they are vulnerable in the air if England contest and clearly Jones has identified Steward against Gabin Villière as a mismatch that can be exploited. Jones and his coaches will have watched how France performed against Wales, they will have seen weaknesses in their aerial game and will look to follow suit.
My mind goes back to the 2019 fixture at Twickenham, when England thrashed France and Jonny May scored a hat-trick inside the first half. That was France’s low ebb, they are an entirely different side and, crucially, they have Shaun Edwards as defence coach, because that was the most disorganised back-three I’ve ever seen. I can’t remember a time when the Twickenham pitch has been made to look that big.
I don’t, for one minute, expect a repeat of that but the point is that England got their joy that day from kicking and in a similar way they’ll look to again. They’ll seek to force France into mistakes, just as they did that day and though the errors are unlikely to lead directly to tries, as was the case then, they may give England territory or possession from which they can build.
England will also take plenty of confidence from their kick-chase against Ireland. Hugo Keenan is excellent under the high ball and it was not so much that he was being beaten to it, it was more that England’s chasers were able to wrap him up and force the turnover. Granted it was Johnny Sexton on that occasion but Maro Itoje’s shuddering hit in the second half, after chasing one of Ben Youngs’ box-kicks, lingers in the memory and Steward’s chasing was excellent too.
Sam Underhill can add to England in that sense. His weight of tackle and choice of tackle is outstanding. His return is incredibly timely with Tom Curry out injured and he’ll be on a one-man mission – just like Joe Worsley or Lewis Moody used to be. If he comes off having made 25 tackles and not touched the ball he’ll have had a good game. That may sound a bit negative but he’s not been picked to do anything other than repel this big, heavy, yet mobile French team.
Setting the tone early is also going to be key – it can’t be as bad as last week – but if France spill an early high ball or two then the crowd will start to get jittery and England can take advantage of that. For all that France have been setting the standard this tournament, they have not been in this situation before. Yes, Edwards has with Wales, but none of the players, none of the other coaches have been going into a grand slam match. England must try to exploit that sense of the unknown and take France to a place they have not been to before. Ireland managed it for 60 minutes and ultimately it was not enough but England will have to do it for the full 80.
I’ve been critical of England’s attack in this tournament and for large parts it just hasn’t functioned. They’ve managed two tries outside the Italy match which just isn’t good enough and I really don’t see England outscoring France in terms of tries. That means that it is time for England to go back to their DNA as opposed to trying to develop their attacking structure. They need to focus on four key areas – the scrum, the lineout, their defence and their kick-chase. It was the tactical approach that they adopted with 14 men last week and I fully expect them to do it again with 15. It is going back to basics, it is putting the “New England” project on hold, but it is time for this side to deliver a result.