England's players have been warned to expect a French renaissance this weekend despite the visitors' status at the foot of the Six Nations table. The head coach Stuart Lancaster is mindful of the 2011 Rugby World Cup when France reached the final after losing in the pool stages to Tonga and expects to encounter "dangerous" foes at Twickenham on Saturday.
History would suggest otherwise, with Les Bleus having won only one championship game in London since the Six Nations began in 2000, but Lancaster believes the real France have yet to surface after early defeats to Italy and Wales. "It doesn't matter who they pick and where they pick them, they're going to be a dangerous side to play against," said Lancaster. "We saw that in the World Cup final in 2011. If you look at the quality of forwards such as Thierry Dusautoir, Louis Picamoles and Nicolas Mas, our pack are already steeling themselves for a mighty battle. That's where we're going to need to be ready."
Lancaster is also mindful of England's stunning victory over New Zealand in December, after they had lost to both Australia and South Africa in the preceding weeks.
"You definitely get a backs-against-the-wall mentality where you want to prove a point. We got the response we wanted against New Zealand and France are a dangerous side, full stop. A French team coming to Twickenham with nothing to lose is a pretty dangerous proposition."
England, in addition, expect the France XV to be reshuffled when it is named on Thursday, with Wesley Fofana set to revert to centre and the powerful Castres flanker Antonie Claassen in line to feature at Twickenham, while Lancaster has taken due note of the French players' weekend absence from Top 14 duty. "It's far too early on the back of two games to say France aren't a good side. If you go through the players who will play against us and when you see them in their club colours, they are good, experienced, tough, big, physical players. So it ain't going to be easy."
The England full-back Alex Goode also has a healthy respect for what the France backs are capable of given some ball in space. "It's bit of a cliche but you really don't know what they'll do. They could turn up at Twickenham at the weekend and decide to run everything from under their own posts and take you on from every position. Or they could come with a more conservative approach, be very physical, try to take us on in the scrum and maul and not really give the ball to the backs.
"We have to make sure our performance is the right level and that we concentrate for the full 80 minutes. If we don't do that and let them score a try from nowhere, their confidence will be up, and all the positivity we've had from the last two weeks and the autumn will be wasted.
"Whoever they bring in, they're going to be good runners and good players. Give the French time and space they are dangerous. In the early part of the game it's about us putting pressure on them and forcing them back into a cul-de-sac."
England will confirm their line-up on Thursday, with Lancaster still weighing up whether to change the starting XV which beat Ireland in Dublin. Ben Morgan remains unavailable but is still hoping his ankle problem will ease in time to face Italy on 10 March. Jonathan Joseph is also nursing a toe problem, Freddie Burns has yet to regain full match fitness and James Haskell missed training because of flu but otherwise England have a clean bill of health.
"They'll want to show passion and take it to the English," said Goode, whose mother is a French teacher. "There is lots of history, niggle and physicality between us in famous games gone by. They'll want to make sure their physicality and passion is there at Twickenham."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © unofficialenglandrugby