|Venue: Twickenham Stadium Date: Saturday, 13 March Kick-off: 16:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen to commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live; live text commentary and post-match video highlights on the BBC Sport website and app.|
Before the 2021 Six Nations began, many might have predicted England’s fourth-round encounter with France would be the tournament’s most pivotal game.
The moment when the two favourites going into the Championship face off to decide who takes the overall title.
As it turns out it is pivotal, but for different reasons.
Former England scrum-half Matt Dawson says Eddie Jones’ side need a “huge performance” as they desperately claw for some form now that their title dreams are all but ended.
An unexpected loss to Scotland, some reprieve against Italy, before a lacklustre display littered with ill discipline against Wales – things are not going the way England fans might have hoped.
Hosting a Grand Slam-chasing France means there is no sign of relief for the 2019 World Cup finalists and Dawson believes players’ international futures could be on the line.
“England are the underdogs now,” he said on BBC Radio 5 Live.
“They are going to be sick as anything because of the results. They know now that there is just a few little blades flying around chopping heads.
“The time is now or they’re gone. There will be a few players thinking if they don’t pull their finger out they’re not going to the World Cup in 2023.”
‘X-factor Malins will bring a spark’
Those “little blades” have already demoted a couple of British and Irish Lions to the bench, with full-back Elliot Daly among the replacements for the first time since 2016.
Max Malins – who has been in dazzling form on loan at Bristol this season – takes the 15 jersey for his first England start.
Jamie George is the other England regular to lose his starting place, with Luke Cowan-Dickie in Jones’ XV for the second time this tournament.
The final changes see Charlie Ewels come into the second row in place of Jonny Hill and centre Ollie Lawrence return to the matchday 23.
The tweaks are perhaps more conservative than many fans would have liked given recent performances, but Jones’ hand may have been forced by his inability to bring new players into England’s coronavirus bubble.
Nevertheless, former France hooker Benjamin Kayser believes the type of people England’s head coach has brought in is telling.
“Max Malins is your X-factor player,” he said. “He’s not going to be a sturdy, long-boot full-back who is just going to be reliable.
“He is put there as a spark. Luke Cowan-Dickie is a powerhouse. He is there to destroy defences. It is not only shaking the leadership of the team, it is bringing something special and something different.”
Dawson says fans have been “crying out” for change and does not believe enough has been done.
“Is changing the full-back going to make a big difference to the England attack?” he asked.
“For me, if you are going to make changes you have to make changes in the spine of the team.
“You have to change the decision-makers. You have to bring new blood into 8-9-10 if you are going to see fundamental changes.”
‘Dupont is a mini Jonah Lomu’
Where the England team-sheet is a great subject of debate, France’s 23 is a thing of wonder.
Centre Virimi Vakatawa returns from injury to add even more clout to an already daunting backline, while 2020 star Romain Ntamack is also back but cannot get into the starting XV.
Instead Matthieu Jalibert – so impressive in the Autumn Nations Cup final loss to England – retains his place at fly-half and will pair up with superstar scrum-half Antoine Dupont.
They are seeking a first Six Nations win at Twickenham since 2005 and Dawson believes France are the favourites “no matter where they’re playing”.
“It’s chalk and cheese watching England and France play rugby,” he added.
“France have the ability to coordinate their attack in little groups but England have lost that ability and they need to find it quick.”
Dupont will be at the centre of that coordinated attack just as he was in victories against Italy and Ireland.
Kayser described the scrum-half as “a mini Jonah Lomu” and promised the side would be ready for a “huge” game in south-west London.
“The unity is there. The spirit is there,” he said.
“The boys are super excited. Twickenham – empty or not – is still Twickenham. England are still England. This game is going to be huge.”
‘France are fit, healthy and roaring’
The only thing that may linger in the back of French minds on Saturday morning is the coronavirus outbreak that swept through Fabien Galthie’s side.
Dupont and captain Charles Ollivon were among 12 players to test positive for Covid-19 alongside Galthie himself.
It forced the postponement of their game against Scotland and means France have not played in a month.
With many squad members playing for their Top 14 club last weekend, Kayser does not believe fitness will be an issue.
“The only question is whether the last couple of weeks have left a tiny bit of a scar in terms of mentality,” Kayser said.
“But I don’t believe so. The boys are happy to be together, they are fit, they are healthy, and roaring to go.”