France set for 'immense challenge' against England after Covid crisis

London (AFP) –


Six Nations title-contenders France are ready for an "immense challenge" when they go in search of their first win over England at Twickenham in 16 years on Saturday.

The Championship as a whole has been on a fortnight's rest, but France have had an even longer absence after their match against Scotland was postponed because of a coronavirus outbreak in the French camp.

But an internal French Rugby Federation inquiry didn't find anyone to blame with head coach Fabien Galthie, under suspicion after he left the team hotel to watch his son play a game, insisting the squad had done its best to follow health protocols.

"France is very exposed, zero risk does not exist," said Galthie.

Les Bleus have enjoyed a resurgence since Galthie took over as coach following the 2019 World Cup and beat reigning Six Nations champions England in Paris last year before a loss to Scotland cost them the chance of a Grand Slam.

Impressive wins over Italy and Ireland have left France again eyeing a clean sweep.

But to maintain those hopes they must beat England at Twickenham -- something no France team has done since 2005 when scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili kicked all of Les Bleus' points in an 18-17 win.

"We have objectives, one is to beat England on Saturday," said France team manager Raphael Ibanez.

"A team who haven't given an inch against France since 2005, that's what's at stake. An immense challenge awaits us."

Yet it is a challenge France almost overcame at Twickenham in December when a side missing several first-choice players because of club agreements pushed England all the way before losing the Autumn Nations Cup final in sudden death extra-time.

Matthieu Jalibert will start at fly-half for France on Saturday, with Romain Ntamack having only recently returned from a double fracture of the jaw.

Antoine Dupont, regarded as the world's best scrum-half by England counterpart Ben Youngs, continues to direct the attack behind a forceful pack led by France captain Charles Ollivon, with the defence bolstered by the arrival from Wales of English specialist coach Shaun Edwards.

- 'Certain freedom' -

England coach Eddie Jones has given a first Test start to full-back Max Malins and recalled hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie following a 40-24 defeat by Wales last time out that all but ended hopes of a successful title defence following an opening loss to Scotland.

Jones expects Malins in particular to have a busy match against France's "long-kicking, high-kicking game".

"They don't play anything in their half, but once they get in your half, they try to create situations where they can play like they are in the park," said Jones.

"You go to France and you see kids playing touch, like you see them in New Zealand, they like to play off the speed of the ball and they like to play off momentum and when Dupont gets momentum around the ruck he is very dangerous.

"They have been able to create a modern version of their olden days when they played with width and a certain amount of freedom.

"It's a really good credit to their coaching staff and players about how disciplined they are."

Discipline has been a major problem for England in recent matches, with captain Owen Farrell exasperated by a couple of Wales tries that French referee Pascal Gauzere later admitted he had been wrong to award.

Yet England still battled back to 24-24.

But the Welsh then scored 16 unanswered points, with England giving away several penalties in the closing stages.

English referees Matt Carley and Wayne Barnes have been working with the squad in the hope Jones' men stay on the right side of Andrew Brace in another behind closed doors contest on Saturday.

"They will help the process, but it comes down to the individual responsibility of the players to make the right decision at the right time," said veteran Australian coach Jones.

"We've encouraged that practice to be good in training and we'd like to see that flow into the game."