The good old days of ritual Anglo-French pre-match insults are distant history but a sudden flurry of Old Testament tough talk is emerging from English ranks before Saturday's collision with Les Bleus. Both Courtney Lawes and Manu Tuilagi are openly planning to dish out several truckloads of Twickenham pain, with Lawes adamant the hosts will not be "bullied" by France's heavy-duty pack.
Lawes, one of three changes to England's unbeaten side, will be making his Six Nations starting debut in his preferred position of blindside flanker and is licking his lips at the prospect of a seriously physical battle against a French team desperately seeking their first victory of the championship. "They want to try and bully us and it's really important we put a stop to that as soon as possible," Lawes said. "I think one of the main reasons I've been put in the team is to bring that physicality. The French are going to bring it as well, you can see that from the pack and the centres they're bringing."
The 23-year-old has already received several tweets asking if he intends to deal with the French scrum-half Morgan Parra as unceremoniously as he did in the European Challenge Cup final of 2009. Lawes's brutal tackle is still out there on YouTube and the Northampton forward, picked ahead of James Haskell, says he hopes Parra and others will think twice about running at him. "There are people you don't want to run at and you're always aware of when they're in the opposition team. I'd like to be one of those players. I'd certainly aspire to be one of those people you have to watch out for. You're never going to admit it as a player but maybe subconsciously it does have an effect."
Lawes was equally forthright on the subject of France's Mathieu Bastareaud, part of a meaty French XV specially beefed up for the occasion by their coach, Philippe Saint-André. If the Toulon centre is hoping for a friendly welcome, Lawes has bad news for him. "He's an extremely good ball-carrier, especially when he's got time. But everyone's got a weakness. We'll put pressure on him, take that time away and see what he's about."
Much the same outlook is shared by Tuilagi, recalled by Stuart Lancaster at the expense of Billy Twelvetrees to crash his way over the gain-line and, if possible, soften up French resolve. "You don't go out there looking for one guy to smash, you've got to perform as a team," said the Leicester centre, now recovered from ankle trouble. "But for me, whatever the game I'm playing in, hopefully those moments will come. The French team are huge men and there are definitely going to be collisions everywhere."
It seems he will not necessarily look to chop many down by the ankles: "My tackling technique is never that low anyway … just below the forehead!"
If Tuilagi's selection is harsh on Twelvetrees, Lancaster clearly expects a thunderous first quarter and has thus opted to deploy the biggest weapons in his arsenal from the outset. "Manu brings a lot as we saw in the New Zealand win in December. There are three key components to this game. One is the set piece, the second is the gain-line battle and the third is how the game unfolds in the last 20 minutes."
Dylan Hartley has duly been recalled at hooker instead of the smaller Tom Youngs to add even more heft to the England scrummage. Lawes will offer further options in the lineout, with the management clearly expecting a more forceful French display than we have seen so far this tournament. Had the bullocking young Wasp No8 Billy Vunipola not injured himself in training, he would also have been on the bench and Lancaster believes Twelvetrees' passing skills will be better employed off the bench when the game has opened up a little. "When sides play England at Twickenham it's a massive game for the opposition," cautioned the head coach. "Irrespective of the side they picked it's going to be a titanic struggle."
England Goode (Saracens); Ashton (Saracens), Tuilagi (Leicester), Barritt (Saracens), Brown (Harlequins); Farrell (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); Marler (Harlequins), Hartley (Northampton), Cole (Leicester); Launchbury (Wasps), Parling (Leicester), Lawes (Northampton), Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), Wood (Northampton). Replacements T Youngs (Leicester), Wilson (Bath), Vunipola (Saracens), Haskell (Wasps), Waldrom (Leicester), Care (Harlequins), Flood (Leicester), Twelvetrees (Gloucester).
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image: © Nigel Wilson