• Preview: France vs England

    New faces will add extra spark to an old rivalry as England travel to Paris on the opening weekend of the Six Nations.

    Indeed, new selections have dominated the headlines in the build up to le Crunch as some bold, and some enforced, changes have given both of Saturday's protagonists a fresh look.

    There will be three debutants at kick-off – Jules Plisson, Jack Nowell and Luther Burrell. France have another on their bench in Antoine Burban. Jonny May has just one cap to his name, Alexandre Flanquart and Henry Thomas have just two while Bernard le Roux, Rabah Slimani and Gael Fickou have only three each. (France field a more experienced starting XV with a total of 354 caps compared to England's total of 286.)

    It's hoped that all that fresh blood will bring a sharper attacking edge to two teams that have failed to ignite imaginations for a long time, but the high-stakes nature of this game is likely to result in another arm-wrestle.

    The pressure will be squarely on the home side. Unlike England, who have the luxury of playing both Wales and Ireland on home soil, defeat for France will likely end their title hopes. Beyond the need for points on the Championship table, les Bleus are desperate for a positive result as Philippe Saint-André's team try build some momentum after a wretched 2013.

    The pressure will be squarely on the home side … defeat for France will likely end their title hopes

    England certainly can't be accused of being overly cautious. The selections of Nowell and Burrell to play in an arena as intense as the Stade de France are bold calls, though not without merit. Nowell illustrated in the European Cup double header against Toulon that he isn't afraid of the big stage – nor will be England's other new cap.

    May might eclipse both of them when it comes to impact, the Gloucester flyer adding his searing pace to an England back division that appeared to be stagnant in last year's tournament. Stuart Lancaster has not held back, and dropping Chris Ashton epitomises that – there must have been a temptation to retain his experience at Test level. By leaving him out, Lancaster shows that he is not afraid to gamble. Marland Yarde and Christian Wade would no doubt have been selected if fit. This England squad certainly isn't dull.

    For all the change to England's backs, their pack is reassuringly solid and consistent. Joe Marler gets the nod over Mako Vunipola but both are excellent young players. England have two outstanding hookers, with Dylan Hartley preferred this time round. Hartley has bounced back from the shameful low of being sent off in the Premiership final and missing the Lions tour more impressively than many expected. He is now integral. Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury will roam; young and athletic enough to make plays but now wise enough to run a successful lineout.

    The key addition though for England is Billy Vunipola. The reason the tries dried up in 2013 were because England lacked the runners to get them over the gain line. Not anymore – with Burrell, Vunipola, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and the second-row pairing all being natural ball carriers. The impact England can bring off the bench in Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola and Ben Morgan continues that trend.

    For all the change to England's backs, their pack is reassuringly solid and consistent

    For France, personnel changes are perhaps less welcome as the losses of flyhalf Rémi Talès and flanker Thierry Dusautoir represent a major spanner in the works. Plisson has been groomed for the big stage but he is being thrown into the deep end far earlier than had ever been hoped. Le Roux comes nowhere near to filling the enormous gap left by the absent skipper and must be considered the weak spot in the French pack.

    And it's the pack that counts. For the all noise made about England's midfield and France's flyhalf, the battle is – once again – set to be decided up front.

    In anticipation of England's set-piece and aerial onslaught, Saint-André has specifically picked Flanquart – in an all-Stade Français second row – for his strength in the air at line-outs and restarts.

    England have a 5kg weight advantage among the forwards and could well have the upper hand in the tight-loose. But the French scrum, led by an experienced front row, will test England's youthful unit.

    Doubt lingers over how England's new personnel and combinations will handle the occasion, but Lancaster has named a strong, solid side. If the visiting pack can hit the heights of last November, then England could make it a hat-trick of wins over their great rivals.

    France – 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Jean-Marc Doussain, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Yannick Nyanga, 5 Pascal Papé (c), 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo
    Subs: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Yannick Forestier, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Yoann Maestri, 20 Antoine Burban, 21 Damien Chouly, 22 Maxime Machenaud, 23 Gael Fickou

    England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Danny Care, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler
    Subs: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Ben Morgan, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Brad Barritt, 23 Alex Goode

    Preview: Wales vs Italy

    Six Nations players to watch

    Photo: Franck Fife/AFP Photo

    Post by

    Simon Borchardt