Victory over England in the 109th edition of ‘Le Crunch’ at the Stade de France on Saturday night will not only see Les Bleus secure their first Six Nations title and Grand Slam since 2010 but also their highest World Rugby Men’s Ranking powered by Capgemini in nearly 15 years.
Only one score separated France from England the last two times these fierce rivals met with Les Bleus going for a Six Nations Grand Slam, with Les Bleus prevailing on each occasion (24-21 in 2004 and 12-10 in 2010).
But for France to move above New Zealand and claim second place in the rankings for the first since Rugby World Cup 2007, the margin of victory is irrelevant, any form of win will do.
If successful, it would add another splash of colour to the French renaissance that has its origins in the back-to-back World Rugby U20 Championship title-winning campaigns of 2018 and 2019.
A good number of the youngsters behind those twin titles have since graduated to the senior stage and carried France into a new era, but one that still has echoes of the past with the power of the pack complemented by touches of genius in the backs.
While the last French team to be ranked second in the world was to quickly fall from grace at Rugby World Cup 2007, with a heroic quarter-final victory over the All Blacks followed by a second tournament defeat to Argentina in the bronze medal decider, Fabian Galthie won’t have to go back to the drawing board if things don’t turn out as planned this Saturday.
This French team has strong foundations and defeat to England, while hugely disappointing, would only be a blip on the progression chart.
England make five changes to France’s one
Head coach Fabian Galthié has largely stuck with a tried and tested formula with Damian Penaud coming back in for the injured Yoram Moefana as the only change to the team that started last week’s scrappy 13-9 win over Wales.
Penaud missed the Wales game because of a positive COVID-19 test and is vying with his fellow winger and team-mate Gabin Villière and Ireland’s James Lowes to be the tournament’s top try-scorer.
Eddie Jones has made five changes to his starting XV with Freddie Steward getting his first test start on the wing, to allow George Furbank to come back into the team at full-back. At scrum-half, Jones has opted for the experience of Ben Youngs over Harry Randall.
In the forwards, Will Stuart starts ahead of Kyle Sinckler at tight-head and Nick Isiekwe returns to the team for the suspended Charlie Ewels. Sam Underhill makes his first appearance of Six Nations 2022 at openside in place of the injured Tom Curry.
Mack is back in Ireland attack
Should Saturday’s result go against them, France will not automatically lose third place in the rankings. That is dependent on the points margin and how Ireland fare in the preceding game against Scotland.
France’s only remaining title challengers will return to third place if they avoid defeat in Dublin and France lose to England by less than 15 points. This would be Ireland’s highest ranking since September 2019
A first win for Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in 12 years would see them move up to sixth place at Australia’s expense.
The headline news from Scotland’s team announcement is that head coach Gregor Townsend has opted to start with Blair Kinghorn over Finn Russell in the pivotal playmaker position. The only other change from the round four win over Italy come in the pack with fit-again Jonny Gray partnering Grant Gilchrist in the second row.
Exciting winger Mack Hansen gets another run out for Ireland due to an injury to Andrew Conway. Elsewhere, Jack Conan comes in at number eight and Caelan Doris moves across to blindside flanker to replace Peter O’Mahony. Iain Henderson replaces James Ryan in the second row, as he did in the second minute of the win against England.
Wonderful memories. Thank you 🙏🏻 https://t.co/HnlXEvMJKD— Ange Capuozzo (@CapuozzoAnge) March 17, 2022
Milestone match for Welsh duo
As for the opening game of the final round of fixtures in Six Nations 2022, it is not possible for Wales to improve on eighth place as a win against Italy won’t lead to any increase in their rating score.
A historic win for Italy in Cardiff, however, would result in the Azzurri’s rating going up but not necessarily their position in the rankings. For the Azzurri to stand any chance of improving on 14th place, they need Georgia to slip up against Spain the Rugby Europe Championship 2022 title decider in Madrid.
Two Wales players doing their utmost to stop a shock result happening at the Principality Stadium will be Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar.
Both players reach significant milestones on Saturday with Jones, now recovered from shoulder surgery, set to become the first player to play 150 tests for his country, while Biggar, the man who replaced him as captain, will reach a century of caps for Wales.
Ange Capuozzo is rewarded for his two-try performance from the bench in last week’s defeat at home to Scotland, with a place in the Italian starting XV. Marco Fuser comes into the second row in the only other change.
Wales currently occupy fifth place in the Six Nations 2022 table with Italy six points behind and resigned to finishing bottom for the eighth year in a row.