England vs. France: 5 Key Battles in International Match
England play host to France on Saturday in the 100th edition of "Le Crunch," a fixture dating back to 1906 and regularly producing fireworks between two of the Northern Hemisphere's most decorated rugby powerhouses.
The teams head to Twickenham this weekend in the hope of advancing their World Cup preparations. England coach Stuart Lancaster faces particular pressure to perfect his squad ahead of a home tournament.
Les Bleus are in a similar state of indecision with helmsman Philippe Saint-Andre entering the final stretch of his France tenure. Taken together, a great deal of mystery surrounds the two teams at present.
These two teams produced a 90-point thriller when last they met in March, and one can only hope for similar entertainment levels in the English capital on Saturday.
Read on for a rundown of the key battles that are most likely to influence this enticing warm-up tie.
1. Sam Burgess vs. Alexandre Dumoulin
It's been an unavoidable subject of discussion around the England camp of late, so Sam Burgess' impending England debut stands as the first item on the agenda for Saturday's collision.
"Collision" is the operative word in this instance as Racing 92's Alexandre Dumoulin is the man preparing to take on the former league star upon making his international appearance.
A single outing for England Saxons is the highest experience Burgess has gained up until now, but former code-hopper-turned-England coach Andy Farrell believes in the convert, according to the Press Association (h/t ESPN Scrum):
What makes me believe Sam is ready is that I have seen the fact he has got himself to the situation he is at now. He's in a squad of 38 players and that means he has done the work required to get himself a chance to play in the first warm-up game.
You'd like to think there's a big game in him. We hope he's part of a good team performance and that's the main focus of all the lads. Everyone would like to put this out as a trial match and a do-or-die situation for some players, but we don't see it like that.
The team may be the biggest priority, but Lancaster would be lying if he said there's not a special focus on Burgess, whom he's hoping to see emerge as the talismanic midfield presence that has been expected of him.
Having played his best rugby at blindside flanker for Bath, Burgess may not give Dumoulin the trouble some would anticipate, though. He's physically imposing and reasonably stern in defence, but Dumoulin has overcome an Achilles injury to finally reclaim his place in the French team.
Having beaten Jamie Roberts out of Racing's lineup last season, the twice-capped 25-year-old is a clear talent, and the inexperienced Burgess could make for easy pickings depending on the game's dynamic.
2. Mako Vunipola vs. Nicolas Mas
Warm-up games are largely renowned as fixtures where smaller names get their chance to shine, but a titanic front-row battle is set to unfold at Twickenham, with Mako Vunipola and Nicolas Mas making for an almighty head-to-head.
That is the best description for the upcoming clash of scrummaging technicians; Vunipola in particular is looking to distance himself from the considerable loose-head competition in the England camp.
The Saracens star has been putting the work in to boost his chances anyway, confessing he had to reconsider his future in rugby following a difficult training camp in Denver, per ESPN Scrum:
There were a few times during the Denver training camp when I did have to question why I wanted to play this sport. You had to dig in and it was one of the hardest sessions I have known. It was a bit like torture but you had to go into survival mode and grind on. Now we are all excited because it's the rugby time.
Still, those hard yards are what ultimately craft champions, and the 35-year-old tight-head prop Mas knows better than most what obstacles a pre-tournament camp tends to birth, having played in two World Cups already.
Watching this pair go full tilt against each other at the scrum should make for fascinating viewing. The 24-year-old Vunipola should be capable of at least boasting an edge in the stamina stakes.
3. Owen Farrell vs. Francois Trinh-Duc
The rise of George Ford has seen Owen Farrell become something of a forgotten man in the England XV, but after a triumphant Saracens season, the fly-half will feel he's still a candidate for the top job come next month.
His anonymity, though, is nothing compared to that of France counterpart Francois Trinh-Duc, who is ready to make his first start for the national team in more than two years this Saturday.
Unfamiliar though his presence might be, partnering with Morgan Parra in the half-back position will bring some comfort to the fly-half as they get ready to make their 21st start as a tandem.
Finding a consistent combination at half-back has been a constant concern for Saint-Andre, but Trinh-Duc's form with Montpellier has at least been good enough to get him back in the conversation to start for Les Bleus.
Farrell, on the other hand, is vying to depose a man who appears to be one of England's few indispensable names, but that won't do anything to diminish the playmaker's motivation to impress.
4. Calum Clark vs. Fulgence Ouedraogo
Lancaster has a conundrum on his hands at flanker, and it speaks volumes of England's depth in that position that Calum Clark is considered the fourth choice behind the likes of Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood and James Haskell.
Similarly, France's flankers make for a closely drawn contest at present, with Montpellier veteran Fulgence Ouedraogo bidding to give Saint-Andre an even tougher dilemma when it comes to who to bring with him to England.
The 30-cap Frenchman lines up at openside on Saturday, hoping to ensure Clark's England debut is a miserable one upon making his first appearance for Les Bleus since June 2014.
At his best, Ouedraogo has been regarded as a work-hardy, energetic scrapper, but this Saturday he encounters a rising name in Clark, whose graft at Northampton Saints has shown him to be no slouch, either.
Lancaster will want to see his side get to grips with ball-playing rugby this weekend, and in that regard, the battle between these two forces will heavily influence which team takes prominence in the possession stakes.
5. Anthony Watson vs. Brice Dulin
Gloucester speed merchant Jonny May has earned plaudits as the standout star of England's training camp, but fellow winger Anthony Watson also has a great deal of expectation upon him to impress this year.
The Bath marvel was among the scorers when these two sides met back in March, but Scott Spedding's emergence saw Brice Dulin take a back seat at full-back, making just one Six Nations appearance in 2015.
Saint-Andre has therefore taken an intriguing gamble in his bid to include the Racing maestro, who lines up on France's left wing in Twickenham and hopes to showcase some versatility.
Watson may not be the most forgiving of foes if that experiment doesn't go to plan, though. Should Dulin show any signs of inexperience in the role, he has one of England's quickest assets bearing down and looking to expose those openings.