England’s Autumn Nations Cup final against France on Sunday is in danger of descending into farce after Les Bleus named a desperately depleted squad for the Twickenham showdown. Eddie Jones warned his players they will need to “beat up” France to claim the one-off trophy but Fabien Galthié is unable to name his front-line names amid a legal dispute over player release, with a huge mismatch now on the cards.
Following a legal challenge from the Top 14 clubs over the summer, it was determined that France players could only appear in three of their six matches this autumn – a stipulation that rules out 20 of the squad, including Antoine Dupont, Virimi Vakatawa and the captain, Charles Ollivon. They are further weakened by injuries with Romain Ntamack also missing, and not one of the XV who started the 24-17 win over England in February will feature.
France were already hampered by the ruling for Saturday’s 36-5 win over Italy, which booked their place in the final, fielding a XV with only 111 caps – England’s lineup for their victory over Wales had 807 – and more than half of those came from Baptiste Serin and Teddy Thomas, both of whom reached the three-match threshold.
Indeed, of the 31 players named on Sunday, only two have 10 caps or more while Anthony Jelonch, who assumed the captaincy when Serin went off on Saturday and could do the same against England, has only three.
To hammer home the disparity between the sides, the French pack on Saturday had 13 caps between them, England’s 360, and Galthié outlined the size of the task ahead when describing Jones’s side as “the best team in the world right now”.
The expected mismatch is hardly what Amazon Prime had in mind for the finale to a first foray into rugby union either, but Jones issued a clear message to his players regardless. He came in for criticism for promising “brutality” against France in February – in part because of how the word translates – and it backfired with their opponents coasting to victory. But he had similarly bullish words for Sunday’s weakened opponents, with England having won their seven matches since that defeat in Paris.
“The French have always got a tough forward pack so we are going to have beat them up, up front,” he said. “The challenge is to get on top of them up front and then we can create some space out wide so we can play a bit. They were too good for us on that day [in February]. I did not prepare the side very well. I have learnt from that and we will have a great preparation this week.”
England’s scrum-half Ben Youngs is wary of the effect playing at Twickenham may have on their opponents, however, so soon after the death of Christophe Dominici.
In 1999 Dominici – who died last week aged 48 – was part of the France side who pulled off a miraculous World Cup semi-final comeback against New Zealand, scoring one breathtaking try and teeing up another for Christophe Lamaison at Twickenham.
Youngs said: “My theory is always that rugby is built around emotion. With the sad news of Dominici and what that will do to their emotional levels, trying to put a performance out there to represent him, I expect a really emotional, passionate team. The 1999 semi-final against New Zealand is a hugely memorable game and I suspect that they’ll be desperate to channel that emotion into a performance.”
E England meanwhile, will be boosted by the return of some supporters at Twickenham for the first time since March, even if the 2,000 will be somewhat sparse in a stadium that holds 82,000. Some players will be buoyed by having their families in attendance but not all will, with anyone living in tier three not attending, according to Rugby Football Union protocols.
Youngs added: “[Someone] like Jack Willis for instance has just started his international career and his family haven’t been able to sit in the stands to watch him. If he’s involved that will be a great moment.”