6N: England win can cure Jones insomnia, set up title finale
Eddie Jones hasn't been sleeping well for the past few days.
It's got nothing to do with the after-effects of the verbal and physical abuse suffered by the England rugby coach on two train journeys that left him shaken, uncomfortable, and vowing to no longer travel on public transport.
The insomnia has instead been brought on by Jones replaying in his head the 25-13 loss to Scotland two weeks ago that has left the English on the brink of relinquishing their Six Nations title.
"I can't sleep," Jones said this week of the 4 a.m. starts to his days, "because it annoys me, losing a game that we shouldn't have lost."
Quite frankly, for the world's second-ranked team and one of the supposed favorites for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, England has underperformed during this Six Nations. A routine opening-weekend win over Italy was followed by a sluggish 12-6 home victory over Wales, which had a try incorrectly ruled out.
Then came the meltdown at Murrayfield, only England's second loss in 26 tests under Jones. Such was the nature of England's display that there was always going to be some sort of reaction from Jones and it came on Thursday in the team announcement for what, even in round four, is a make-or-break match against France in Paris.
In one of the biggest selections of his tenure, Jones dropped fullback Mike Brown — a player he vigorously defended in front of the press last month after the Wales game — and recalled strapping Ben Te'o at center in preparation for what Jones has predicted will be a "slogathon" in forecasted rain.
Jones also has to make do without injured captain Dylan Hartley, necessitating the promotion of British and Irish Lions hooker Jamie George from the bench. It is an enforced change that many pundits have been calling for anyway.
The English are at the point of no return. Five points behind Ireland after three games, they might need a bonus-point win in Paris just to stay alive in the championship. Win without a bonus point, and Ireland can wrap up the title with a bonus-point victory of its own against Scotland earlier Saturday.
The hyped-up and widely predicted title decider between England and Ireland at Twickenham on the final weekend might not even happen, after all.
"We want a response from the players this week," Jones said.
"Le Crunch" — as the game between France and England is often labeled — rarely lacks bite and France coach Jacques Brunel summed up the typical nature of the fixture.
"After you play the Welsh, the Scottish, the Irish, you are tired and your body hurts, but it's OK," Brunel said. "Against the English, we feel smashed. It hurts the next day because it's always harder. That's what we should prepare for."
France is out of title contention after consecutive losses to Ireland and Scotland on the opening two weekends. A 34-17 win over Italy got the French up and running but familiar problems persist, away from the mercurial nature of their displays.
Flyhalf remains a critical problem, as it has done for years. Francois Trinh-Duc will be the third different player to start at No. 10 in just four matches after he was promoted in place of Lionel Beauxis, who started against Scotland and Italy.
Matthieu Jalibert started against Ireland but got injured. Anthony Belleau, one of several players dropped following an alcohol-soaked night out after the 32-26 loss to Scotland, continues to be excluded from selection.
"We hope he brings us that little extra to finish off moves," Brunel said of the 31-year-old Trinh-Duc, who will win his 65th test cap across a decade of international duty. "Against Italy, we went 15 times into their 22 and we scored only three times. That's not enough. Francois will have (Toulon teammate) Mathieu Bastareaud next to him and he knows him well."
Bastareaud's head-to-head with Te'o in the centers could be explosive, and one of the intriguing battles in a match England cannot afford to lose.
France: Hugo Bonneval, Benjamin Fall, Mathieu Bastareaud, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Remy Grosso, Francois Trinh-Duc, Maxime Machenaud; Marco Tauleigne, Yacouba Camara, Wenceslas Lauret, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Paul Gabrillagues, Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado (captain), Jefferson Poirot. Reserves: Adrien Pelissie, Dany Priso, Cedate Gomes Sa, Romain Taofifenua, Kelian Galletier, Baptiste Couilloud, Lionel Beauxis, Gael Fickou.
England: Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Ben Te'o, Owen Farrell (captain), Elliot Daly, George Ford, Danny Care; Nathan Hughes, Chris Robshaw, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury, Dan Cole, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, James Haskell, Sam Simmonds, Richard Wigglesworth, Jonathan Joseph, Mike Brown.