Six Nations: How can England derail in-form France?

Ellis (right) in conversation with then French head coach Marc Lievremont in 2011

Conference location: Twickenham Stadium Date: Saturday March 13th Kicking off: 16:45 GMT
Cover: Listen to a commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live. Live post-match text commentary and video highlights on the BBC Sports website and app.

Before Shaun Edwards, there was David Ellis.

Like Edwards, Ellis played rugby.

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

And for more than a decade, Yorkshireman Ellis held the job Edwards has now. Defense coach for the French national team.

During his time in the French line-up, Ellis was part of five six-nation victories, three Grand Slams, and reached the semifinals and finals of the 2007 and 2011 World Championships, respectively.

He has also held positions at Racing, Bordeaux, Castres, Brive and Lyon, most recently spending time with Toulouse in preparation for a Champions Cup quarter-final win against Ulster in September.

The English six-nation defense appear to be a losing cause after losing to Scotland and Wales in their first three games. In contrast, France has it all as it relies on confidence and victories over Italy and Ireland.

But Ellis says England can turn the book of form on Saturday at Twickenham and disrupt France’s young, exciting team. Here is how.

Win the Whistle War

Jamie RitchieFrance led Scotland 7-6 when Mohamed Haouas was sent off four minutes before the 2020 break in Murrayfield. France lost 28-17

England’s disciplinary record so far has been scrutinized in the tournament after giving up 41 penalties in their first three games.

But France has its own problems. Mohamed Haouas’ red card – for a haymaker’s right hand against the nose of Scottish flanker Jamie Ritchie – must have cost his team last year’s title.

They received four yellow cards in the 2020 Six Nations, more than any other team, and Bernard le Roux’s sin meant the win against Ireland last month was closer than necessary.

“Without a doubt, discipline can fail France,” Ellis told BBC Sport.

“They are a young team, relatively inexperienced, and if the opposition puts pressure on them they can go against them. With the French, it’s an ongoing thing.

“Even when I was involved in the French team, before highlighting any organizational aspects, individual discipline was the most important factor.”

Target midfield

The fallen peasantsVirimi Vakatawa, born in New Zealand and raised in Fiji, made his first impression when he was seventh

Virimi Vakatawa is back after an injury and straight to the French XV. Strong and quick, he can find holes or create them. While England are forming an established partnership with Owen Farrell and Henry Slade, Vakatawa and Gael Fickou have only teamed up five times in a starting midfield.

And neither do specialists. Both have made stints on the wing as well, Vakatawa early on in his testing career and Fickou more recently.

“There’s a question mark in midfield,” said Ellis.

“France swapped and switched with Fickou on the wing and then back in the centers. Vakatawa has been a staple in the middle lately but he’s a converted wing. Defensively there is a weakness there.

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

Beware of the dangers of Teflon Dupont

Antoine DupontAntoine Dupont was player of the tournament in the Six Nations last year

Antoine Dupont’s fringe sharpshooter skills and skillful hands were one of the engines behind the revival of France.

The 24-year-old scrum half is currently probably the best player in the world and is highly praised by his English counterpart Ben Youngs and the New Zealand nine, Aaron Smith.

Eddie Jones said he would be content with the fact that Dupont has only one good game, not one exceptional.

He said: “We want Dupont to have a decent game, do all the simple things well, but none of the special things.

“If we can keep it in a small box, that’s a good result for us.”

In the second row, Maro Itoje effectively harassed Ali Price and Kieran Hardy in the games against Scotland and Wales, albeit at the cost of several penalties. Will he get the same mission against France?

“Ireland did a good job in France and part of that took care of Antoine Dupont,” said Ellis. “They put pressure on him so that he had no room to develop the fast-paced style of play that he likes.”

Step with caution

Brice DulinDulin returned to the French side from the international scene in November after more than three years

On France’s last six-nation trip to Twickenham in 2019, England ran to one Win 44-8 as they stepped into an acre space behind the visiting defense.

Her full-back this weekend is Brice Dulin, who is only 5 feet 9 inches tall. But Ellis says England shouldn’t be tempted to launch an air strike on Dulin’s path.

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

“Dulin was France’s greatest player alongside Dupont. I remember when Racing contested the Heineken Cup final against Saracens in 2016. Richard Wigglesworth did a lot of boxing kicks, the weather wasn’t good, Dulin was bombed all the time … and he took it all.

“He’s one of the best in the world under the high ball, his size doesn’t matter. When he leaves the ground, he commands the air.”

Finish well in the front five

Romain TaofifenuaRomain Taofifenua joins France XV after winning 16 of his previous 22 internationals

France has a grizzled forward pack that goes with a glittery backline. But some of her strength in the first five was consumed by illness and injury.

Second row Le Roux is missing and will be replaced by Romain Taofifenua. This is only the third time in so many years that France has started.

“If France play their best front five, you won’t get much out of them,” said Ellis.

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

“With Le Roux and Paul Willemse it is like having two additional strikers in the back row. They are very comfortable and hit hard in defense.

“But when there is another second row in there, the wheels start to loosen.

“And in the second half, when the changes go into the front row, there are doubts whether the substitutes can do the same.”


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