England and France will collide in a giant mismatch of experience in Sunday’s Autumn Nations Cup final that even Les Bleus manager Raphael Ibanez accepts can be viewed a “farce”.
The 107th meeting between the rivals is the most lopsided Test in history with England fielding their most seasoned line-up of all time containing 813 caps, while France will arrive at Twickenham with a mere 68 caps.
The vast disparity in appearances is the result of constraints placed on head coach Fabien Galthie by an agreement between the French Rugby Federation and the Top 14 clubs over availability.
Your team to face France 🌹
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) December 4, 2020
Each player can be picked a maximum three times across the autumn’s six Tests and having relied on his front line internationals earlier in the campaign, Galthie is forced to send a shadow team to Twickenham.
It has devalued the final to the extent that Ibanez, the former France and Wasps hooker, admits “seen from abroad this final can be regarded as ‘a farce’. We can understand them”.
England retain 13 starters from last autumn’s World Cup final in a settled side that shows just one change following last Saturday’s victory over Wales, with Anthony Watson replacing the injured Jonathan Joseph on the right wing.
Yet Eddie Jones has played down the benefit of having an additional 745 caps, adding that 8/1 underdogs France – hosts of the 2023 World Cup – must be respected.
“It’s no advantage. They’ve got a squad in place and are playing different members of their squad,” Jones said.
“We’ve been able to select from the core of our squad, so it’s one squad against the other one. No one gets a head start, it’s all-square when we run out there on Sunday.
“France have a strong team. You just have to look back at 2009 when they went on tour to New Zealand.
“In the first game of the tour they didn’t have a lot of their senior players available and they won that Test.
“We know the French are capable of great things. They’ve got great depth in their Top 14. We respect French rugby, you can never underestimate a French team.
“At the moment they’re on a project to win the World Cup in 2023 and this is part of their project.
“Historically we’ve seen that with their football. They did that in 1998 when I think Gerard Houllier was the technical director and they set a project to win that World Cup.
“Then in 2018 they set another challenge to win the World Cup, so we don’t under-estimate France at all.”
The climax to an autumn spanning an unprecedented five Tests will be played out in front of a 2,000 crowd following the easing of lockdown restrictions.
England have stitched together an impressive seven-Test winning run without putting their best foot forward in attack and, despite the new faces in France’s ranks, they are determined to avenge their only defeat of the year that unfolded in Paris in February.
“It’s such an exciting final for rugby – to have fans back, to have probably the two best sides in Europe playing in the final of an inaugural competition which has produced some good, tough rugby. It’s a great opportunity to showcase the game,” Jones said.
The first ever winners of the #AutumnNationsCup will be crowned at Twickenham on Sunday afternoon – but will it be England 🏴 or France 🇫🇷 lifting the trophy? 🏆
— Autumn Nations Cup 🏉 (@autumnnations) December 4, 2020
“My message to the players will be to put every bit of effort into every minute of the game and win every battle.
“The game will be a series of battles, whether that’s in the air, on the ground, in the scrum or the line-out. We’ve got to make sure we commit ourselves to every battle.”