Expert Witness: Lewis Moody cools Owen Farrell dropping hype as he backs England to edge France

Lewis Moody Credit: Alamy
Lewis Moody Credit: Alamy

As the Six Nations moves towards its penultimate round, England legend Lewis Moody joins Expert Witness to preview Le Crunch at Twickenham.

All change

Selection has dominated the headlines to the build-up to this match, with England dropping their skipper Owen Farrell to bench duty and France recalling brick wall centre Jonathan Danty after long term injury.

Inevitably, the Farrell decision has set tongues wagging, but Moody believes that this is just part of Steve Borthwick’s wider planning.

“The first thing we have to understand is that Steve is trying to fast track four years of Rugby World Cup build-up into the nine games he has before setting off to France. This means he needs to explore all the options available to him from within a fairly settled group of players,” he said.

“I have seen an improvement in England‘s backline with Farrell at 10 over the last two games. His performance against Wales was exactly what you’d want from a Test match 10 as he controlled territory and possession.

“The opening try for Anthony Watson was testimony to Farrell’s vision in attack – a delightful pass to bring Max Malins in off his wing and speed back into the line to deliver another killer pass. It’s rare to score tries off first phase ball at Test level and that was one that was superb in both planning and execution. I’d like to add also that the introduction of Ollie Lawrence has been a massive plus here and his addition has brought a lot to England’s midfield.

“However, Borthwick also needs to look at how Smith can run a game from 10, for two key reasons; firstly, if you look back at the last year or so of availability, either Farrell or Smith have been unavailable around 50% of the time. Attrition rates are high in rugby and to plan a campaign around 15 fixed players simply doesn’t happen – you need a squad. Secondly, it’s about exploring the benefits of either option and selecting the team to deliver a plan against the various teams you face. When you have the depth of option England has at 10, it’s nuts not to explore the style and the value each player can deliver.

“So, in short, whilst the public narrative appears to be that ‘Faz has been dropped’ that isn’t quite the case and Borthwick has been crystal clear and consistent in his message around this. It is about exploring the options available in a very limited time frame and we cannot lose sight of that.”

French direction

“For me, the bigger news is France recalling Danty after proving his fitness in three Top 14 matches. He’s crucial to the French game plan and they’ve been lateral and lacking penetration without him,” Moody said.

“French rugby has always seen the nine as the orchestrator of the match over and above the 10. Whilst Romain Ntamack is a gifted rugby player, he acts more as a secondary distributor rather than a traditional fly-half. Put simply, more often than not, the French plays have been off the nine, not the 10 but, with Danty back at inside centre, this allows France to play off both nine and 12. They can use Ntamack (or at times, Thomas Ramos) in that linking rather than controlling role, allowing them to change the point of attack or use Danty to punch holes, allowing Dupont to recycle himself and go again, once more with the team playing off him.

“France have appeared lateral this season as I said, and a lot of this is down to missing that big midfield 12 threat. The other benefit of this is it frees up Gael Fickou to run the outside backs as a true 13, whereas up until now he’s worked at 12 in attack and 13 in defence, which isn’t ideal.

“The other big change of course is the enforced absence of Anthony Jelonch with his ruptured ACL, and France will miss his carrying and abrasion hugely. It’s ironic that it was an ACL injury to Francois Cros a year or so back that gave Jelonch the chance to nail down a starting shirt and now the tables have turned as Anthony’s injury allows Cros to return back into the same shirt he previously vacated.

“As flankers, their styles are very different and that leads me to my head to head. Both Cros and his Toulouse teammate, Jack Willis, will be in direct opposition all game! France play left and right over openside and blindside, but Cros is their jackal man, the breakdown specialist and a suffocating and relentless presence over the ball, pretty much exactly the same skillset as his Toulouse teammate Willis.

“It always adds a bit of spice when you play against a teammate and in Jack and Francois’ case, good friends and Toulouse training partners! I well remember playing against people like my best mate Geordan Murphy, when any chance to get a little cheap shot or a sledge in at each other would be met with giggles and banter all match! Sadly, I have to confess Geordie got a few more sly ones on me than I ever got on him, always delivered with cheek, choice words and banter. Of course, you want to get bragging rights over your mate so you can spend the rest of the club season reminding him of the events – that’s how it goes.

“But being serious for one minute, the Cros versus Willis battle is one I believe will be key. Whoever wins that battle of the breakdown specialists will go a long way to securing the result and that clash, together with Danty versus the excellent Ollie Lawrence in the 12 berth, are the real head to heads to savour.”

Key battlegrounds

“For all the anticipation of the return of Marcus Smith and the desire to see running rugby, I am going to pour a little cold water on your dreams – this is Test rugby and the side that delivers the most effective kicking strategy will win the match,” Moody added.

“France kick longer than any side in the world – trusting speed of defensive line to pressure the return. England has a very mature ‘contestables’ strategy, using clever shorter kicks with the brilliance of Freddie Steward and the two wingers in getting up to chase and win the aerial battle. Consider this as the third set-piece, the part of the game that will free up space to play the ball in hand game. You cannot go wide without first earning the territory, position and numerical mismatches to do so, so whilst we will see Marcus strutting his magic at times, the pragmatic part of his game is as key as the off-piste bit.

“I have mentioned the breakdown and the Cros versus Willis battle, but the other key back-row clash will be in carry, with both teams using their eight and blindside to bang into the defensive line. Gregory Alldritt hasn’t really fired this year and France will need a big performance from both him and his world-class colleague Charles Ollivon against two men in cracking form, Lewis Ludlam and Alex Dombrandt.

“Lastly, it’s about owning the scoreboard. One of the fairer criticisms of Farrell has been his goal-kicking, which has been out of sorts. France has Thomas Ramos, a man with a huge and consistent boot, to strike from 55 metres and closer, so taking points on offer to maintain three point advantages will be as key as ever.

“This is a tough match to call, but looking back, France hasn’t won at Twickenham since 2005. For some reason they travel poorly to HQ and that will play on their mind. An early try will be key – England tend to start a little hotter than France and getting the initial lead will be crucial. It’ll be very close but I see England having just enough at home to win by five or six points, 29-25 or something of that ilk, with the performance being just as key as the result for both teams.”

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