England scrum-half Ben Youngs believes the work done by Shaun Edwards will make even a weakened France tough to beat come their Autumn Nations Cup final clash.
The December 6 encounter at Twickenham sees Six Nations champions England up against the only side to have defeated them this year.
But some of the shine has been taken off the showpiece fixture by the knowledge that rugby politics mean France will be a long way from full strength. Arguably, England will not even be playing against a French 2nd XV.
Following a threat of legal action by France’s Top 14 clubs, unhappy at the lack of consultation over the revised calendar created in response to the coronavirus pandemic and fearful of the risk of injuries to key men, it was agreed that their France stars could make only three appearances during the six Tests that now constitute ‘Les Bleus’ end-of-year schedule.
That means the France team that runs out at Twickenham on Saturday will not contain a single member of the side that started this international window with a warm-up win over Wales, a week before the Covid-interrupted Six Nations resumed.
Of the matchday 23 that day, only fly-half Matthieu Jalibert, an unused replacement, survives for the game at Twickenham.
– ‘Ferocious’ –
Youngs, however, remains wary all the same.
England would have won the Grand Slam but for a 24-17 defeat by a resurgent full-strength France in Paris in February.
England’s first match since losing last year’s World Cup final to South Africa also coincided with former Great Britain rugby league star Edwards’ move from Wales to the French camp.
“Whichever French team takes the field will be ferocious,” Youngs told reporters on Sunday.
“With Shaun Edwards as defence coach there will be no lack of physicality or organisation. It doesn’t really matter because they are a squad with a huge amount of talent.
“We really respect France and know what they’re capable of — we got done the last time we played them so they’ll be confident.”
Youngs, who recently became only the second player after Jason Leonard to win 100 caps for England, added: “They’re probably the most-improved team over the last 12 months.
“We fully respect what’s coming next weekend.”
England booked their place in the final by topping Group A with a 24-13 win away to Wales in Llanelli on Saturday.
But they had to withstand a Wales fightback in the third quarter where their lead was reduced to 18-13 — a situation England coach Eddie Jones compared to watching the infamous shower scene in the horror movie ‘Psycho’.
Previous England sides might have lost their nerve in such a situation but the visitors were able to pull clear again at Parc Y Scarlets.
“We had a large part of the game under control but there was a period in the second half where we gave away a few penalties in a row and were ill-disciplined,” said Youngs.
“Previously when that’s happened we’ve sometimes not eradicated the penalties and they’ve kept coming and we haven’t been able to snap them.
“That shows a huge amount of growth in the side and that was really pleasing.”