Twickenham played host to the 2023 edition of Le Crunch, as Steve Borthwick’s England played their first match against a team expected to be in contention for the Rugby World Cup later this year. Les Bleus were welcoming back a few regulars to their 2 following injury, while the news from the England camp was largely focused on Marcus Smith being given the 10 shirt, with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench.

And it was the visitors who got the better start, Thibaud Flament’s line break releasing Ethan Dumortier, who sent Thomas Ramos over in the corner, who also kicked the conversion and a penalty just minutes later for an early 10 point lead. After an awful first 10 minutes, England grew into the game and found some parity, and turned down a kickable penalty on 19 minutes to go to the corner, only for a poor maul to break apart and allow the defence a chance to get in and steal the ball on the floor. And Les Bleus made them pay 5 minutes later as a 50-22 from Antoine Dupont put them within 10m of the line, and a few phases of pressure saw Flament crash over for the try. A penalty allowed England a quick chance to respond, but after again going to the corner, they were penalised for obstruction as they set the maul. England finally chose to go for the posts with their next penalty just after the half hour, and Marcus Smith finally got them on the scoreboard, only for Ramos to immediately counter with a kick of his own. And when the French scrum got the wheel on at the end of the half, a dominant carry off the base from Grégory Alldritt allowed him to send Charles Ollivon over for the try, Ramos maintaining his 100% record off the tee for a 3-27 lead.

Though far from perfect, England were competitive at the start of the second half and thought they had a try after 5 minutes as Marcus Smith’s crosskick evaded Ramos, only for the diving Max Malins to fail to collect in goal. England went to the bench early, with ALex Mitchell and Owen Farrell coming on for Jack van Poortvliet and henry Slade, and it had an immediate impact as the tempo increased from the hosts, which resulted in Freddie Steward crashing over for a much-needed try. But France soon recovered from the shock, and when Dupont chipped into the England 22 from the back of a ruck, Romain Ntamack beat Steward to the ball and tapped back to the onrushing Flament for his second try of the match. And when France broke again and kicked downfield, forcing Marcus Smith to set up the ruck on his own line, Charles Ollivon had the presence of mind to realise that the ball was free over the line and he came through to dot the ball down for another try. England were struck another blow in the final 20 minutes as Ollie Lawrence went off injured, and with all the replacement backs already on, Alex Dombrandt was forced to fill in at centre, which France took advantage of entering the final ten minutes, Fickou’s cross-kick evading the Harlequin and finding Damian Penaud, who had been quiet by his standards but did not hesitate in cantering 60 meters untouched for another try, while he was celebrating another just minutes later as they caught England far too narrow and beat the bliting Anthony Watson to send the wing over in the corner, Ramos finally losing his 100% kicking record for the game. England looked to try and end a humiliating day on a minor positive, but Steward found himself held up over the line in the corner, leaving them left to reflect on a chastening 10-53 loss, their largest ever home defeat.


This was a major reality check for England. After years of stagnation under Eddie Jones, it was never going to be easy for Steve Borthwick to turn things around in time for the World Cup. It must be remembered, England came into this tournament basically a step or 2 above Wales—mainly due to the depth they have courtesy of the Premiership compared to the Welsh—while France are one of the favourites for the World Cup. And that gap in quality really showed.

One of the stars of the Premiership, Alex Dombrandt has struggled to replicate his performances on the Test stage, and looked especially poor in this game, with a number of handling errors and often going to ground too early, putting his team under pressure. 2 stupid early penalties from Lewis Ludlam helped remind me why I have never considered him a Test-level back row, while players like Maro Itoje and Jamie George continue to not reach their Saracens level of performances with a rose on their breast instead. Jack van Poortvliet struggled to get anything going and provide quick ball, while his replacement Alex Mitchell impressed for about  minutes before putting in a torrid display that will surely see Harry Randall sending the England coaches a reminder that he’s available.

And as the new attacking gameplan is still settling in with a change at 10, the last thing you want is a game against a Shaun Edwards defence, especially with Jonathan Danty’s return helping solidify the midfield. Too rare were the times that England were able to get on the front foot, and it left Smith with little to work with. But what was really worrying was just how easy the French found it to turn the English over… it honestly felt like men against boys at times watching Danty, Ollivon, Flament and Aldritt take control of the game.

And the bad news for England: next week they face an Irish side likely playing for the Grand Slam. It’s hard to imagine that things will get any easier for English fans this month…


If you want to highlight the success of Fabien Galthié’s decision to reset the squad at the start of the cycle and build from day 1 with the World Cup in line, look no further than Thibaut Flament.

With the dynamism of a back row but the physicality of a lock, Flament is one of those incredible locks on the level of Tadhg Beirne who are so hard to account for due to their unique blend of skills. Over the last few seasons we have seen him embedded into the squad, with 9 appearances last year but only 3 starts (against Argentina and twice against Japan). Now 25 years old and with another season of top flight rugby under his belt, this was his sixth start of the season for Les Bleus. And now that he has secured himself as a starter, it is allowing him to really carve out a role in this team.

Previously, his dynamism was used to hurt a tiring opposition, much like we have seen from players like Sipili Falatea and Matthieu Jalibert. However now that he has become a starter, he has actually added a new dimension to the French attack. Rather than just being another big carrier like his partner Paul Willemse, his dynamism allows himself to be used slightly wider where the defence is less congested and the gaps between defenders is bigger. By then targeting the gap, he can look to use his pace and power to break through, and even if the defense does tackle him, he will have generally managed to get through the tackle, where he can then look to offload to his support men, creating the linebreak that his team will so often convert into 5/7 points.

And the scary thing is that he will likely just get better over the next few years. Expect to him becoming a regular in my Team of the Tournament articles.

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