6N: France ready to seize Grand Slam chance against England

For France’s rugby players, the words “Grand Chelem” — Grand Slam, in English — have been taboo in the camp during the Six Nations.

Until now.

The holy grail of European rugby is staring Les Tricolores in the face, for the first time in more than a decade. It’s unavoidable now.

And, to Romain Ntamack, it’s something he and his teammates should embrace as they look to complete a clean sweep of wins and become kings of Europe once again by beating England in Paris on Saturday.

“There is pressure, yes,” the France flyhalf said of “Le Crunch” and everything that comes with it, “but I think this group knows how to turn it into a positive to get out of the big matches at the right time.”

After all, Fabien Galthié’s class of 2022 have a different mentality to the slew of France teams that have underwhelmed since 2010 — the last time France won the Six Nations, and the Grand Slam to boot.

For example, the teams under Philippe Saint-Andre that couldn’t finish higher than fourth from 2012-15. Heck, there was even a wooden spoon in 2013 — an utter embarrassment for a country of such rich rugby resources and heritage.

Then there were the forgettable tenures of Guy Noves, sacked in 2017 after less than two years at the helm and finishes of fifth and third in the Six Nations, and Jacques Brunel, another coach to last less than 24 months and with a pair of fourth-place finishes in the Six Nations.

It has taken the appointment of Galthié to bring the best out of the French, implanting expressiveness and self-belief into a bunch of young, talented players.

Yes, there has been the return of some of the French flair of old. But the team does the basics so well, has the forward power needed to win a gruelling Six Nations, and the defense, too. Take, for instance, what proved to be a backs-to-the-wall 13-9 win over Wales in Round 4 last week as evidence.

Put simply, France — after going close over the last two years as Galthié molded his team into a winning machine — looks ready to be a Six Nations champion. Perhaps even a world champion on home soil next year.

The 40-25 win over New Zealand in November gave the team the favorite’s tag heading into the 2022 tournament and they’ve relished the challenge from the moment they emerged through a sticky first half against Italy on the opening weekend to claim a bonus-point 37-10 win.

“This match in November against New Zealand created great dynamics that have kept on going,” France manager Raphael Ibanez said.

One final push awaits and it’s England, the biggest European rival of the French, which awaits at the Stade de France.

An English team hit by injuries, in transition under Eddie Jones, and coming off an energy-sapping 32-15 loss to Ireland at Twickenham last weekend in which they played for almost the entire match with 14 players.

It’s there for the French, but can they seize the moment?

England changed a third of its team to freshen up after the Ireland loss, which knocked Jones’ side out of contention.

One of them is Ben Youngs, England’s record appearance-maker with 116, who regained his place at scrumhalf.

Prop Will Stuart, lock Nick Isiekwe and flanker Sam Underhill, making his first England appearance since the November tests, came into the pack.

France’s only change saw winger Damian Penaud return to the team after recovering from a COVID-19 infection. He replaced Yoram Moefana, who damaged his knee in Cardiff.

Two of France’s three Grand Slams in the Six Nations era — since 2000 — have been achieved by beating England on the final day, in 2004 and 2010.

“Honestly, we wanted to be in this position,” Galthié said. “We did everything to be there. We have to be humble, but yes, we are in the position we wanted to be in.”

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Lineups:

France: Melvyn Jaminet, Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Jonathan Danty, Gabin Villiere, Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (captain); Gregory Alldritt, Anthony Jelonch, Francois Cros, Paul Willemse, Cameron Woki, Uini Atonio, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille. Reserves: Peato Mauvaka, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Mohamed Haouas, Romain Taofifenua, Thibaud Flament, Dylan Cretin, Maxime Lucu, Thomas Ramos.

England: George Furbank, Freddie Steward, Joe Marchant, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Marcus Smith, Ben Youngs; Sam Simmonds, Sam Underhill, Courtney Lawes (captain), Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje, Will Stuart, Jamie George, Ellis Genge. Reserves: Nic Dolly, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, Ollie Chessum, Alex Dombrandt, Harry Randall, George Ford, Elliot Daly.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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