For all that this Six Nations represents a key opportunity to prepare for the World Cup, the tournament refuses to be relegated to a poor second and on its own merits, is being taken even more seriously than ever by the two front runners England and France.
Despite France making four changes and Lewis Moody’s probable absence from the England XV, there is a consistency about the squads that suggests that both are close to discovering what their best team is.
For France, consistency has been their perennial problem, yet looking at the changes the team looks stronger than ever. Yannick Jauzion replacing Damien Traille means Ben Foden can expect real competition in the air. Vincent Clerc is an experienced performer while Dimitri Yachvili makes rugby of the highest quality look easy.
The one player I am uneasy about is Sebastian Chabal. The look is as scary as ever, but it has been a long time since I witnessed one of his thuddering tackles or barnstorming runs.
Given the strong stance that Martin Johnson takes, it is inconceivable that this England team will be intimidated and certainly not at their rugby HQ. Chabal will be a main target for England and I expect them to target him in the early stages. Expect some massive hits.
Johnson will have been pleased at the manner in which his players responded against Wales. This Saturday’s game, rightly labelled ‘Le Crunch’, is another step up against top quality opposition. Twickenham will be akin to “Le Cauldron” such will be the level of intensity. It should be the most compelling game of the Six Nations and,if England’s midfield defence can stand up to the angles, support running, offloading and pace of the French backline, then home advantage may well be the biggest factor.
The victors will have a Grand Slam to shoot for. The rest of the rugby-playing world will look on with interest to see if either side can announce themselves as genuine contenders for an even bigger prize later this year.