Rugby Union

All eyes on England vs France as Six Nations steps into new future

For the announcement of a new investor that may well have great bearing on the future of rugby, there was little fanfare or fuss to this week’s news that CVC had purchased a one-seventh stake in the Six Nations, slipped out ahead of team announcements on a Thursday morning. Perhaps this is due to our strange circumstances, or perhaps the nature of a much-discussed deal that was not so much rugby’s worst-kept secret but a flashing neon billboard obscured only by the perfunctory drape of the finest of fabrics, but here we are: the Six Nations has a seventh vested stakeholder.

The deal struck sees the competition valued at, extrapolating from the £365 million investment that gives CVC a 14.5% stake, in excess of £2.5 billion, so these are welcome times for unions cash-strapped by the pandemic. Answers to key questions about what this all means more widely may soon become clear but there are few fixtures to better illustrate the Six Nations’ value than this one – England and France arriving for a meeting at Twickenham in contrasting fashions, but neither in anywhere near comfort after recent events.

For France it has been three weeks of off-field panic since a Covid-19 outbreak in camp. Reports of separate misadventures for waffles in Rome and for coach Fabien Galthie in Paris were extremely disappointing, and perhaps it is the nature of this French side, a wonderfully talented team that looked so on course for a Grand Slam, that has caused such consternation and outcry at the events, given it appeared a new leaf might have been turned.

It is good news, then, that despite a stern telling off for Galthie and the team, France are able to travel to Twickenham close to fully equipped. It appears that a suitable date (Friday 26 March) has been found for them to play Scotland, with compromise, common sense and collaboration for once ruling in rugby and hopefully allowing us a relatively swift Six Nations conclusion.

England, meanwhile, are searching for on-field answers. They make three changes to the side that started in defeat to Wales, most eye-catchingly the installation of Max Malins at full-back with a remit to attack when he can against France’s long and high kicking game, and with hopes that he may inject himself at the right time to enable to attack to click with greater consistency. Wing Anthony Watson wins a 50th cap.

The other two changes have a degree of sense to them, too. Luke Cowan-Dickie’s form has pushed him alongside Jamie George to mean that there is no perceptible drop between the pair, with the Exeter hooker favoured from the start this week, as he was against Italy. Charlie Ewels’ extra lineout nous will ease what Jones described as a “load” on Maro Itoje with France likely to compete hard at the set-piece, particularly through captain Charles Ollivon.

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The lessening of the burden on the nevertheless inextinguishable Itoje is key as both he personally and England generally seek to correct their ill-discipline. Matt Carley and Wayne Barnes would not have been the names most England fans would have wanted called in to Eddie Jones’ camp ahead of a meeting with France, but it was for two of World Rugby’s top referees that Jones had to send.

Together the English pair have worked with the players both on refereeing processes and provided opportunities for players to train against the sort of adverse situations England have struggled to cope with in this tournament.

“We have tried to create training sessions this week particularly to replicate what might be termed a disappointment in the game to ensure we don’t lose our focus,” Eddie Jones explained. “What happens when you are not at your best is that when you get those disappointing moments in the game, all other ideas start flooding into your head rather than getting back to what is important. We’ve particularly this week tried to create sessions that have elicited that response.”

France are not afraid to tread close to the line, either, particularly in pursuit of a physical, fast defensive structure employed by Shaun Edwards, precisely the sort that has troubled England in the past. They may be absent of workhorse Bernard Le Roux in the second row but are able to call upon the fit-again trio of Camille Chat, Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa. The former pair are withheld on the bench, but Vakatawa’s threat is significant in midfield from the start.

It is Antoine Dupont’s individual effervescence that this French side so often calls upon, though. Ben Youngs referred to his opposite redefining scrum-half play this week, and Dupont is certainly uniquely and wickedly talented. If England give him an inch, he may just take a Twickenham mile on Saturday.

“Our defence around the ruck has got to be good, it has got to be tight,” said Jones of France’s chief threat. “We would like him to have a tidy game, do all the simple things well, but not any of the special things. If we can keep him in a little box, then it will be a good result for us.

“They play that long kicking game, they don’t play anything in their own half, they kick long. We feel we have got a pretty good idea of what we want to take away from them, and where we can take the initiative in the game.”

The ramifications of the investment on television rights and more widely will become clear soon, but it is anticipated that at least some of the tournament will be on a paid platform – Amazon are currently most strongly mentioned – as CVC look to maximise their return and assess their options.

France’s route to a Grand Slam will have to go through a wounded English side playing for little but national pride and a performance to cling to from a lost campaign. In this competition, that is motivation enough, of course, and CVC will certainly be happy as they dangle their Six Nations hook officially for the first time – this playing of Le Crunch could well be alluring bait.

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