It was once billed as ‘Le Crunch’ but outspoken England coach Eddie Jones was ready for a rugby ‘war’ against France in the opening match of his Grand Slam champions’ Six Nations title defence at Twickenham on Saturday.
England, on a 14-match unbeaten run — 13 of those wins since Australian coach Jones was installed after their lacklustre first-round exit at the 2015 World Cup — will be firm favourites.
But Jones insisted ‘Les Bleus’ would prove as formidable opponents as any of the ‘teams’ who’ve troubled England in their long history of rather more serious conflicts with France.
“It’s always a historic game, certainly there is history between France and England,” said Jones.
“We’ve got one staff member who is into history — (defence coach) Paul Gustard.
“There’s been 20 wars between England and France. That’s a lot of rivalry there. There is another one happening on Saturday,” the Australian added.
“We are going to face a side that’s desperate for success. They are under pressure to play with French flair.”
But Jones, coming right up to date, said an upset was possible if England followed the example of an Arsenal football side coached by French manager Arsene Wenger after their hopes of Premier League title glory suffered a setback with a surprise 2-1 midweek defeat by Watford.
“If we do what Arsenal did on Tuesday when it was 2-0 and the team wakes up, if we do that against France, we will be in trouble because they can score some points.
“Itâs really important that theyâre in the game right from the start. We have to front up, do the business.”
Jones has drafted utility back Elliot Daly in on the left wing while injuries have seen him reshape his pack.
Maro Itoje, best known as a lock, makes his first Test start in the back-row after blindside flanker and former England captain Chris Robshaw was ruled out of the entire Six Nations with a shoulder injury.
“The boyâs got athletic ability,” said Jones of Itoje. He’s a great defender and thatâs what we want from 6 â- a great defender. He fits that spot that Robshaw had.”
Turning to Daly, whose last England appearance saw him sent off for a dangerous tackle against Argentina in November, Jones added: “He has a big left-foot kick and he has genuine pace and can also play outside centre.
“The way we want to attack France, that’s going to be important for us.”
With George Kruis, Itoje’s lock partner at both Saracens and England, out with a knee problem, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury will start in the second row.
England will also be without the injured Vunipola brothers, with prop Mako replaced by Joe Marler, who said drinking vast quantities of milk lay behind his recovery from a fractured leg.
France will be looking to go one better after running both world champions New Zealand and Australia close in November defeats.
Scrum-half Baptiste Serin has been given the chance by France coach Guy Noves to show what he can do from the start against England.
“Serin was very effective off the bench in November after a very good tour of Argentina,” said Noves.
“It seemed wise to see what he could give in a difficult context from the start of the match.”
An admiring Noves was wary of even an injury-hit England.
“Like anyone else, we can only admire the continuity in their results, their mindset,” he said.
“But I hope we will show we can start doing the same, and that we will match up. We know their development system is so good that even with a few injuries, they have enough depth.”
Someone knows the English game well is gifted France back-row Louis Picamoles, now with Premiership side Northampton, where he plays alongside England captain Dylan Hartley.
“Itâs helped his career, coming to Northampton,” said Jones of Picamoles, whom he labelled a “lovely player”.
“He would be probably 15 percent fitter than Iâve ever seen him.”