THE aerial battle in international rugby is now so intense it’s a big advantage to have a full-back who is strong and dominant in the air, with great catching ability, whether they are challenging for the ball in attack or receiving it – and it will be no different when France play England today.
The number of box-kicks and kick-passes means that a full-back has to dominate the airwaves.
You have to be so confident in that department that you make the opposition think twice about kicking the ball anywhere near the 15, and you can only do that if the full-back is so good that they are soon persuaded that they are just giving the ball away.
Elliot Daly was simply not commanding enough in the air at 15 – not in the way that Rob Kearney was for Ireland, while Mike Brown was also good for England, and Ben Smith for New Zealand.
While Daly was full-back it was a position where other teams could get stuck in to England – and that is why, in part, the uncapped George Furbank has been given the 15 shirt against France.
From the little I’ve seen of Furbank I’m not sure he will provide an immediate remedy. At 5ft 10ins and 13st 5lbs he is not the biggest full-back, and that means his timing will have to be brilliant if he is to make a big impact.
There were a couple of high balls he missed in Northampton’s recent European Cup game against Lyon, and he also dropped the ball coming into the line – before scoring a try with an arcing run round the last defender.
Furbank’s got some good spring in his legs, but everything will have to be perfect if Virimi Vakatawa and Gael Fickou are chasing kicks at full speed, because if they get to the ball ahead of him, he’s in trouble.
We have seen flashes of pace and ambition from Furbank in attack for Saints, but what has probably won him his first cap is his defence.
He has played a lot of rugby this season in the Premiership, in eight games his tackle success rate is 84 per cent, which is pretty good – and looking at the French backline, it will probably need to be.
That puts Furbank in front of the likes of Bristol’s Charles Piutau, on 65 per cent, and Bath’s Tom Homer, 64 per cent, and well ahead of Exeter’s Stuart Hogg, on 59 per cent.
Furbank’s chance has come thanks to Anthony Watson’s injury, with Daly being switched to the wing, and it could not be in a game with more of an electric atmosphere. Apart from Twickenham I could not think of a more brilliant place than Paris in which to make your debut.
It will have been a great feeling to be included in the squad, and then to be playing is a dream come true. Furbank must get off to a confident start by winning that first high ball, making sure he catches everything thrown to him, judges his first pass to perfection, and makes a textbook first tackle.
He is part of an exciting back three, and I think that Daly will be happier on the wing, because he will not be as exposed as he was at full-back. Jonny May will also hope to continue his great form from the World Cup – and it was a pity about the hamstring twinge that saw Scott Barrett prevent him from scoring against New Zealand, because I’m sure that if the Leicester wing had been fully fit he would have escaped comfortably.
Eddie Jones has been talking about England bringing brutality against France, but the word that I think he was looking for is intensity – because that is what overwhelmed New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final.
England were accurate and fast, and it was so intense, with a continual flow and low error count, that they went from red-hot to white-hot.
It is that intensity that England need against France, and if they play like that they will be quids-in. They could not do it against South Africa in the final, mainly because they were dominated by the Springbok defence and made too many mistakes.
The lesson they should have learned is that you cannot allow a defence like that to pressure you continuously – which means relieving it by kicking smartly.
England have been successful statistically with George Ford at 10 and Owen Farrell at 12, and we are unlikely to see anything different from them against France.
However, the French backline they will be facing looks hugely exciting, because as well as being full of talent, it also has plenty of physicality. For instance, Vakatawa is a match for Manu Tuilagi in terms of power and pace, while Fickou is more powerful than Farrell.
In the fly-half contest Romain Ntamack is quicker than Ford, but does not have the same game management expertise, while Antoine Dupont is a really clever scrum-half who will not lack confidence opposite the 96-cap Ben Youngs.
I used to describe Daly as the most gifted footballer in the Six Nations, but Damian Penaud could overtake him. Penaud has the pace of a winger, and the vision of a fly-half, as well as a great skill-set, a sidestep or swerve going either left or right, and the ability to score from six metres or 65.
May will have his work cut out controlling this kid, and even though he is one of England’s most improved players, he will have to time it properly against Penaud, or risk looking average.
Teddy Thomas has also been in good form, and he is so quick and strong that if his head is in the right place, he is dangerous.
France have been poor and rudderless for a decade, but when I saw the announcement of this backline I went, ‘Wow!’ There is some serious talent from 9 to 15, and England need to be on high alert every time the French backs get the ball, because if they link and get an understanding going, there’s no telling where it ends.
It’s formidable, but if I’m England my message is we are number two in the world, so bring it on. Youngs, Ford, Farrell, Tuilagi, May and Daly have had ups and downs, and are much more experienced – and France have a habit of showing mental frailty in Paris, where the crowd can often go quiet.
Much will depend on the forward battle, and whether the new French defence coach Shaun Edwards has the home side so switched-on in defence that it becomes the key to their attack.