Six Nations: How can England derail France?


David Ellis and Marc Lievremonth
Ellis (right) talks to then-France head coach Marc Lievremont in 2011
Venue: Twickenham Stadium Date: Saturday, March 13th Start the game: 16:45 GMT
Coverage: Listen to the comments on BBC Radio 5 Live; live text comments and post-match videos on the BBC Sport website and app.

Before Shaun Edwards was David Ellis.

Like Edwards, Ellis played the rugby league.

But like Edwards, he coaches the union, especially the defense.

And for more than a decade, Yorkshireman Ellis has been doing the job as Edwards is now; coach of the defense of the French national team.

During his time in France, Ellis was part of five wins of six nations, three Grand Slams, and ran to the semifinals and finals of the 2007 and 2011 World Cups.

He has also been in positions at Racing, Bordeaux, Castres, Brive and Lyon, and recently spent time with Toulouse preparing for the Ulster Cup quarter-final victory over Ulster in September.

England’s Six Nations defense looks lost due to defeats by Scotland and Wales in the first three games. In contrast, France must play for all, relying heavily on confidence and victories over Italy and Ireland.

But Ellis says England can reverse the form on Saturday and shatter the chance of France’s young, exciting team at Twickenham. Here’s how.

Win the whistle

Jamie Ritchie
France led Scotland 7-6 when Mohamed Haouas was sent off four minutes before half-time at Murrayfield 2020. France lost 28-17

England’s disciplinary record has so far been under the scrutiny of the tournament, after he gave up 41 penalties in the first three games.

But France has its problems. Mohamed Haouas ’red card – for the hay of Scottish footballer Jamie Ritchie’s right-hand man – probably cost him last year’s title.

They picked up four yellow cards at Six Nations in 2020, more than any other team, and Bernard le Roux for sin meant last month’s win over Ireland was narrower than it should have been.

“Without a doubt, discipline is something that can let France down,” Ellis told BBC Sport.

“They are the young side, relatively inexperienced, and when the opposition puts pressure on them, they can break. With the French, it’s ongoing.

“Even when I was involved in the French team, before I emphasized any organizational aspect, individual discipline was the number one factor.”

Target midfielder

Pali farmers
Virimi Vakatawa, born in New Zealand and raised in Fiji, made an impact for the first time as a player of the seven

Virimi Vakatawa returned after injury and straight to the French XV. Strong and fast, it can find holes or create them. But while England are going with an established partnership between Owen Farrell and Henry Slade, Vakatawa and Gael Fickou have previously paired up in the starting midfield just five times.

And they are not specialists either. They both also worked on the wing, Vakatawa at the beginning of his test career, and Fickou recently.

“There’s a question mark around the middle of the field,” Ellis explained.

“France swapped and changed with Fickou on the wing and then returned to the centers. Vakatawa was a major player at the center recently, but the wing has been redesigned. On the defensive, there is a weakness there.

“And if and when Romain Ntamack comes off the bench, he’s not the best defensive fly in the game.”

Beware of the dangers of Teflon Dupont

Antoine Dupont
Antoine Dupont was last year’s tournament player in the Six Nations

Antoine Dupont’s sniper power around the edges and skillful hands are one of the drivers of France’s renaissance.

The 24-year-old modest half is currently arguably the best player in the world, earning the exciting praise of English counterpart Ben Youngs and nine-Zealand’s Aaron Smith.

Eddie Jones said he will be content with Dupont who has only good, not exceptional play.

He said: “We would like Dupont to have a tidy game, it does all the simple things well, but not some special things.

“If we manage to keep it in a small box, then it will be a good result for us.”

Maro Itoje from the second row effectively bothered Ali Price and Kieran Hardy in the games against Scotland and Wales, albeit at the cost of a few penalty kicks. Will they get the same mission against France?

“Ireland did a good job in France, and part of that was caring for Antoine Dupont,” Ellis said. “They pressed him so he didn’t have room to develop the fast-paced style of play he likes.”

Hit carefully

Brice Dulin
Dulin returned to the French side in November after more than three years off the international stage

On France’s last six-state trip to Twickenham in 2019, England fled to banging 44-8 as they struck in acres of space behind the visiting defense.

Their quarterback this weekend is Brice Dulin, who is only 9 feet tall. But Ellis thinks England should not be tempted to launch Dulin’s air strike.

“You’d be wasting your time,” Ellis said.

“Dulin, along with Dupont, was an outstanding French player. I remember when Racing played the Heineken Cup final against the Saracens in 2016. Richard Wigglesworth planted a bunch of boxes, the weather wasn’t bad, Dulin was bombed all the time … and he took it all.

“He’s one of the best in the world under a high ball, his size doesn’t go into that. When he leaves the country, he commands the air.”

Finish well in the front five

Romain Taofifenua
Romain Taofifenua is coming to France XV after winning 16 of his 22 previous caps from the bench

France has a gray forward package with dazzling background lines. But part of their strength in the front five has been exhausted by illness and injury.

He is missing Le Roux from the second row, and has been replaced by Romain Taofifenu, which is only the third start for France in the same number of years.

“When France plays their top five, you won’t benefit much from them,” Ellis said.

“Julien Marchand is a prototype of a modern whore – a great runner and ball handler who can jackal and turn the ball in defense.

“With Le Roux and Paul Willemse, it’s like they have two extra strikers in the back row. They carry very well and hit hard in defense.

“But when any other row is found, the wheels start to give way.

“And in the second half, when the changes come to the forefront, there is doubt as to whether substitutions will be possible.”

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