France travels to southwest London this weekend to face England for the 2023 edition of “Le Crunch”.
Today’s headline news has been the dropping of captain Owen Farrell from the English starting line-up. Dropped for the first time since 2015, Farrell is replaced by Harlequins Marcus Smith in what would undoubtedly have been new head coach Steve Borthwick’s most challenging decision.
Due to Farrell’s displacement from the starting line-up and the injury to vice-captain Courtney Lawes, Bristol Bears star, Ellis Genge assumes the captaincy.
Having led Leicester Tigers to a Premiership under Borthwick last season, Genge was the obvious choice to take over from Farrell. The Loosehead has blossomed into one of the senior leaders in the England squad and, at just 28 years old, could well be a long-term England captain.
Farrell, who will no doubt be disappointed in his demotion, has been uncharacteristically out of form from the kicking tee in the tournament. Usually one of the top-place kickers in the game, Farrell has averaged 47% in the Championship.
Smith’s potential elevation to the starting role was rumoured earlier in the week and, at the time, caught many off guard. Having returned to Harlequins in the fallow week, Smith put in a masterful display for his club in their dominant victory over Exeter Chiefs.
Now settled in the starting flyhalf role, Smith will link up with Jack van Poortvliet in the halfbacks. Outside Smith will be the centre combination of Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade, who were immensely impressive in England’s round two wins over Italy.
Elsewhere it remains as you were outside of Lawes being replaced by Dave Ribbans as he works his way back from injury.
Steve Borthwick has named our side for #ENGvFRA on Saturday 🌹@O2 | #WearTheRose
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 9, 2023
French coach Fabien Galthie has made three changes to his side before the Twickenham trip.
In the front row, tighthead Dorian Aldegheri replaces the suspended Mohamed Haouas. Behind them, Francois Cros comes on the flank for the injured Anthony Jelonch.
Perhaps the most significant development from a French perspective is the return of influential centre Jonathan Danty, who makes his first start in the Championship.
The physical centre is vital in the French defence and operates as a fourth backrow at the breakdown. His presence outside Romain Ntamack should take pressure off the Toulouse playmaker, given his ability to generate go-forward ball.
🏴🆚🇫🇷 Ce week-end c’est 𝒍𝒆 𝒄𝒓𝒖𝒏𝒄𝒉 à Twickenham 💪
Rendez-vous samedi à 17h45 ! #NefaisonsXV #XVdeFrance #ANGFRA pic.twitter.com/BJd6f8Mp2L
— France Rugby (@FranceRugby) March 9, 2023
Although the title decider is likely to occur in Edinburgh, the clash at Twickenham is crucial for both sides to enter round five with a chance of taking the trophy.
Given the up-and-down form of the two sides through the opening three rounds predicting a winner is a challenge.
Yet there is significant evidence to suggest that England at Twickenham remains a considerable challenge for Les Bleus, irrespective of their form.
Smith’s elevation should somewhat spark the English backline, whilst Genge feels like the no-nonsense leader England needs now.
Having predicted the French will finish fourth this season. I will stick to my gut feeling that Les Bleus resembles the Ireland of 2019, a side burdened by the pressure of expectation and one that looks slightly short of ideas at the moment. England by 8.
Written by Philip Bendon
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Lawrence, 11 Anthony Watson, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet; 1 Ellis Genge (c), 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Ollie Chessum, 5 Maro Itoje, 6 Lewis Ludlam, 7 Jack Willis, 8 Alex Dombrandt
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 David Ribbans, 20 Ben Curry, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Henry Arundell.
France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Ethan Dumortier, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont (c); 1 Cyril Baille, 2 Julien Marchand, 3 Dorian Aldegheri, 4 Thibaud Flament, 5 Paul Willemse, 6 Francois Cros, 7 Charles Ollivon, 8 Gregory Alldritt.
Replacements: 16 Peato Mauvaka 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Sipili Falatea, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Sekou Macalou, 21 Maxime Lucu, 22 Yoram Moefana, 23 Melvyn Jaminet.