Again and again this week, Steve Borthwick has warned of the dangers of the French kicking game. He’s not the type to engage in mind games, so instead of seeing this as an attempt to get France to avoid putting his foot on the ball, it’s safe to assume he’s expecting an aerial bombardment.
Not the type of Wales who inexplicably didn’t deviate from a game plan focused on fightable kicks despite Freddie Steward’s authority below them, but long, deep kicks encouraging England to fire back or hit the ball back.
Borthwick is correct in pointing out that France won the Grand Slam last year by kicking further than anyone else, and although they are not at the top of the table this campaign (England won), there is a suspicion that so far Les Blues they were more willing to experiment with different aspects of their game.
However, France, who are looking for their first Six Nations victory at Twickenham since 2005, are expected to bring their A-match on Saturday. Borthwick certainly thinks so, and it’s perhaps telling that Melvyn Jaminet – who has the cannon of the right boot – is back on the bench. Thomas Ramos, Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont don’t have the distance Jaminet has, so his return to France 23 looks significant, albeit precipitated by Matthieu Jalibert’s injury.
France won the Grand Slam last year not only by kicking the most but also carrying the fewest yards out of the six teams. The thing is, they are happy to long kick and either win a kick battle or fall back to knock down opponents in their half. The fact that almost all of their 17 tries in last year’s championship came within five phases supports the notion that they are a team that thrives on the mistakes of their opponents.
“These guys kick the ball from a long distance and try to pin you back as far as possible into your own 22,” said Borthwick. “They try to force you to make a mistake or kick the ball loose. As soon as you make a mistake, their attack power and the speed of the ball come into play.”
Borthwick points out how France has honed their kicking game over the last three and a half years. It certainly worked in their first game after the 2019 World Cup – against England in Paris – when Anthony Bouthier memorably hit the ball from near his own goal line to 22 opponents.
This also coincided with the appointment of South African Vlok Cilliers as kicking coach and there is also cunning in this as evidenced by the way they exploit a loophole in the law to impressive effect. The law states that a player – in this case, let’s say Dupont, because in practice it’s usually him – is declared offside when the player with the ball moves five meters.
Provided Dupont is not within 10 meters of where the ball lands, he can be active once the opponent has moved within those five meters. So while it may look like Dupont is massively burned, it’s actually perfectly legal.
France used this trick against England last year – Dupont was actually penalized by referee Jaco Peyper for missing the full 10m – but it would be no surprise if the scrum half ended up in a similar position on Saturday, descending on Steward at back room.
“[France] we built a long kick game that is currently the most advanced of any international rugby team and we have been working on it for three years,” said Borthwick. “They built their game around strong kicking. No one in the game mines longer than them. They had three and a half years of development [their kicking game]”.
So the steward is in for a different afternoon than the one he experienced in Cardiff. A year ago, Eddie Jones deployed Ellis Genge in the back room – one of his most daring schemes, which was not without success in the sense that the loose prop caused a staggering number of yards and many dents in the French defence, less so because it ultimately affected his scrummaging. It’s hard to imagine Borthwick with a similar gimmick, meaning Steward can expect to be kept busy.
“The biggest thing will be trying to figure out what they’re trying to impose on us,” he said. “Will they try to tire us out with a kicking plan or will they retake the field and try to take advantage of a set-piece. Once we’ve determined that, we’ll apply whatever contraindications we’ve been working on over the course of the week as soon as possible.