Tick tock. It doesn't seem all that long ago that we were casually supping on beers, lazily throwing names about left, right and centre for World Cup selection. Few of the names were the dead-certs such as the Robshaws and Youngs (that would be boring), but most were marginal calls (such as Luther Burrell), contentious issues (Steffon Armitage, anyone) left-field selections (Elliot Daly as the 'wildcard') or just downright bonkers ("Wilko is still great shape, you know"). But whatever the days musings, it seemed that any decision-time was an age away. And now, all of a sudden, here we are at the last chance saloon.
If it seems to have crept up on us as mere bystanders (or bloggers with too much spare time on their hands), I can't think what it must be like as a player. Years of hard works with your club to get into the picture in the first place, all those weeks of being flogged in the UK and USA and, if you were lucky enough to avoid the initial 'culls' to that point, you're fate rests squarely in the hands of a quiet bloke northern bloke with no hair. A sobering thought. But at least these lads have had one last crack to show their worth – either against France at Twickenham last week, or against the same opposition in Paris tomorrow. Make or break time indeed.
After many of the 'possibles' had a run-out last week, it's the turn of the 'probables' this week. And that for me says that this game will be more about winning and getting match fit, than trying to show off what you can do. That means that points will be kicked at the posts instead of at the corner, and maybe the territory game will come into play a little more, but with England's emboldened style of play, and the talent on show in a near full-strength French line-up, we should still be in for a cracker. But just because there are more 'probables' on show this time doesn't mean there aren't questions that need to be answered – and not just general ones like "can the first choice pack dominate like the second choice couldn't", but ones relating to specific players. Can Tom Youngs bring his throwing up to par with the rest of his game? Can Luther Burrell and/or Billy Twelvetrees grab themselves a centre spot with Burgess and Slade setting down markers? Can Jamie George prove he's worthy of a World Cup spot? Will Cipriani touch the ball more than once if he comes off the bench this time? All big questions, which need big answers.
As I said last week, trying to guess the winner in a World Cup warm-up game is a pretty tricky exercise – there are ulterior motives for players who perhaps are under pressure to perform, so they may be more selfish than usual, and there isn't that usual win-at-all-costs mentality. Well, there shouldn't be. But I have a feeling that England will take this game rather seriously. The French can almost rely on past form and be fairly comfortable in the fact that, even if they are appallingly bad in the World Cup warm-ups, they will probably still be a genuine threat when the tournament starts itself. That's just how they seem to roll. But England, after struggling physically last week, could do with putting down a marker. Forget about individual pressure for places, if England go to Paris, dominate the forward battle and claim a comfortable victory, that does catch the eye; that does instil some momentum. And, as an individual, that certainly doesn't harm your chances of making the cut.
It's last chance saloon alright, and it’s last orders. Drink up!
France Team News
France head coach Philippe Saint-Andre has made 12 changes to his team to face England in Paris on Saturday. Lock Pascal Pape, 34, captains the side in the absence of injured Thierry Dusautoir (who is replaced by Bernard Le Roux) while fly-half Frederic Michalak also starts. Centres Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana are also named in the starting XV for the World Cup warm-up. Only Louis Picamoles, Yoann Maestri and Scott Spedding remain from the side that lost 19 – 14 last weekend.
Starting Line-up: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde; 1 Eddy Ben Arous, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 3 Rabah Slimani, 4 Pascal Pape (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 6 Damien Chouly, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 8 Louis Picamoles.
Subs: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Yannick Nyanga, 21 Rory Kockott, 22 Remi Tales, 23 Gael Fickou.
Freddie Michalak. Who knows what to expect from the veteran half-back, these days. As usual, we do see flashes of brilliance from him in a Toulon shirt, but more often than not that shirt has the number '9' on his back these days. For some reason, and frankly who knows what goes on inside Phillipe Saint Andre's head, the French management still love to see him in the fly half spot though – but, to be fair, it's getting harder to blame them. Time and again we've seen players like Lopez, Tales and Trinh-Duc given the quartermaster reigns and fail to produce the goods with any form of consistency. Unfortunately, one word you don't associate with Michalak is 'consistency' (unless you're talking about him being consistently inconsistent, but that's just picky). If Freddie wants to have any shot of nailing down that shirt for the World Cup, he simply has to play in aggressive manner that shows off his sublime skillset – his quick thinking, he slick hands and cultured boot. These are wasted when he plays miles behind the gainline (as he often does for France), so he needs to be threatening the English defence all day…especially when he has Bastereaud running hard outside him.
England Team News
Stuart Lancaster names a much more recognisable England side for their game in Paris, with Mike Brown playing for the first time since his concussion in March. Wing Jonny May is the only player to keep his place from England's 19-14 win over the same opponents last weekend. Captain Chris Robshaw returns to a pack that includes a front three of Joe Marler, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole. Luther Burrell starts at centre, with fly-half Danny Cipriani on the bench.
Starting Line-up: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs; 1 Joe Marler, 2 Tom Youngs, 3 Dan Cole, 4 Joe Launchbury, 5 Courtney Lawes, 6 James Haskell, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 8 Billy Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 David Wilson, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Nick Easter, 21 Danny Care, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.
Tom Youngs. It's come as a surprise to some that the Leicester man hasn't been wrapped in cotton wool up until the World Cup actually starts, given that he's now clear first choice with a significant quality and/or experience gap to those behind him in the pecking order, but the England coaching team and staff will need some calming re-assurance in Paris on Saturday. Last weekend, the set piece creaked badly with a second string side and Youngs has to make sure that the lineout is a well-oiled machine under his stewardship. Only, of course, throwing has been the Achilles heel of the ex-centre who, in every other department (such as defensive work and power on the carry) is the best hooker in the UK. I'm confident that, after a full summer of practicing and working as first choice with the starting locks, he will have ironed out any problems – his lineout work for Leicester is always solid – but he will be under extra scrutiny on Saturday night. And, for the love of God, please don't get injured.
Mathieu Bastareau v Luther Burrell. It can't have been easy for Luther listening to everyone harping on about the qualities of Sam Burgess and Henry Slade – it's easy to forget that, in just 2014, Burrell burst onto the scene with a series of impressive performances in the Six Nations and was very much the man of the moment. But the fact remains that he did not show up well in this year's tournament and concerns remain about his decision making at key times (he topped the 'bombed tries' guilt list), his occasionally turnstile-esque defence and his exaggerated cheek-puffing. Good job he's up against one of the most physical centres in world rugby then on Saturday – but if Burrell wants to put his doubters to bed and claim that centre spot for the World Cup, then he couldn't have asked for a better opponent against whom to make his case. Solid, aggressive defence and hard running lines should be enough to sway Lancaster in his favour.
As above, there are lots of considerations to think about with a World Cup warm up – and I've mentioned why I think England might want this more. But, even if this was a Six Nations game, I would still have England as favourites – which is something I've never really done before. The first choice pack oozes power and guile and, with a rapid and creative backline playing to a coherent game plan, the visitors just strike me as the better side currently. The French, of course, have individuals in most positions to match – if not exceed – their counterparts, but I suspect we will still witness a Les Bleus side that is tragically short on ideas for a team of such talent. Famous last words… England by 10.