A new era begins for France in Paris on Sunday as Fabien Galthié takes charge for the first time with optimism swirling around the squad.
The young stars that helped Les Bleuets win the World Rugby Under 20 Championship in 2018 and 2019 are starting to come of age but in their 2020 Guinness Six Nations opener they face an experienced, battle-hardened England side.
England are the only team in this year’s Championship with the same coach and captain as 12 months ago – Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell returning to those roles – while they are also coming off a run to the Rugby World Cup final last autumn.
Clashes between the sides at the Stade de France are invariably tense, hotly-contested affairs and there is nothing to suggest this year will be any different as Galthié looks to lay down an early marker.
Back-rower Charles Ollivon – who has made just one Championship appearance to date – is the new skipper following Guilhem Guirado’s retirement, while explosive young half-back pairing Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack both start in Round 1.
There are still experienced heads smattered across the starting XV with Gaël Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa in the centres, while Bernard Le Roux is at lock.
But England’s team for Sunday’s contest – with its 685 international caps – certainly holds an experience advantage with Ben Youngs edging ever closer to 100 Test appearances and Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler and George Ford also above the 60 mark.
Their wildcard comes in the form of uncapped Northampton Saints full-back George Furbank, while Charlie Ewels will also make his first Guinness Six Nations appearance in the second row.
WHAT THEY SAID
France coach Fabien Galthié: “Expect a ferocious pack. Expect a ferocious battle to win the ball.
“Expect my players to stand their ground with ferocious tackles and collisions. They will play with passion and go beyond their limits.
“A successful Championship is a Championship that is won. The fact we’re playing England first means we will have to immediately match their very high standards of rugby.
“We have been studying their players and their recent matches so we can raise our level very quickly to face them in Round 1 at the Stade de France.”
England head coach Eddie Jones: “It has been a massively exciting week for us. It is the start of the Guinness Six Nations, the best rugby tournament in the world. We have had a great preparation in Portugal with a quality training week this week.
“France can expect absolute brutality from England. We are going to go out there to make sure they understand what Test rugby is.
“It is about being brutal, it is about being physical and it is about dominating the set-piece. We have picked a strong forward pack which is part of the England way and an exciting backline with young George Furbank playing his first Test at full-back.”
KEY BATTLE – Antoine Dupont v Ben Youngs
It’s youth versus experience at scrum-half and whoever can dictate the tempo behind their pack could decide the final reckoning.
Ben Youngs is a slightly more old-school No.9 – comfortable box-kicking clear and firing out passes, although his sniping ability from the base of the ruck has led to 14 international tries to date.
He will win his 96th Test cap on Sunday, 75 more than his opposite number, yet it speaks to the faith Galthié has placed in youth that those 20 caps make Antoine Dupont the fourth-most experienced man in France’s starting XV.
Dupont is a scrum-half from the new school, an athletic playmaker with a skillset perhaps unmatched by any other No.9 in the Championship.
He was top five in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations in both clean breaks and defenders beaten, regardless of position, and his ability to break a game open at any moment means Youngs would be well served to keep a close eye on the 23-year-old.
STATS – POWERED BY AWS
- England’s 44-8 victory last year at Twickenham was their biggest margin of victory over France in Championship history.
- Jonny May was the top try scorer in the 2019 Guinness Six Nations with six
- Antoine Dupont beat more defenders than any other scrum-half in last year’s Championship (17), while prop Demba Bamba’s 14 men beaten was far more than any other forward.
FRANCE: Anthony Bouthier; Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gaël Fickou, Damian Penaud; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas, Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse, Francois Cros, Charles Ollivon (captain), Gregory Alldritt. Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Jefferson Poirot, Demba Bamba, Boris Palu, Cameron Woki, Baptiste Serin, Matthieu Jalibert, Vincent Rattez.
ENGLAND: George Furbank; Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (captain), Elliot Daly; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry. Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, George Kruis, Lewis Ludlam, Willi Heinz, Ollie Devoto, Jonathan Joseph.
France v England
@ Stade de France
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)