Billy Vunipola insists England must meet France’s giant carriers head on if they are to continue their march towards the Guinness Six Nations title.
Paris was the setting for the tournament’s greatest comeback last weekend when Les Bleus built a 16-0 half-time lead against Wales before collapsing to a self-inflicted 24-19 defeat.
Sebastien Vahaamahina only discovering that he had taken over the captaincy against Warren Gatland’s men when referee Wayne Barnes told him served to underscore the chaos in the French camp.
Vunipola, however, has warned of the threat they pose if allowed to build a head of steam.
“What happened against Wales probably shows how dangerous they can be more than anything,” said Vunipola, a star of the 32-20 rout of Ireland in Dublin.
“What Wales showed us was how not to start a game. If you give them a leg up, then France are extremely, extremely dangerous.
“We’ve all played against French sides – once they start feeling it emotionally then they’re very, very tough to stop, so we can’t allow them to get into that position.
“They’re massive blokes and if you give them momentum they’re tough to stop. As a pack we must confront the challenge of their big carriers.
“They’ve made a few changes up front, but it’s probably added more to them than taking away any of their strengths.
“They’re probably a bit more athletic with Yacouba Camara in at six and Demba Bamba has some good footwork at tighthead prop. He’s a big, big human being.”
England made a remarkable start to the Six Nations by dismantling favourites Ireland in a performance which sounded an ominous warning to their rivals in World Cup year.
Vunipola, who is back in the team after recovering from three successive broken arms, echoes Eddie Jones’ belief that sweeping aside Joe Schmidt’s champions is just the beginning.
“The challenge is to be better. We’ve spoken all week about being better,” Vunipola said.
“We have leaders and coaches who aren’t happy having goals that aren’t the same or similar. We want to push forward and see if we can improve.”
England enter the round-two fixture armed with inside knowledge from attack coach Scott Wisemantel, who spent coaching spells at Top 14 clubs Clermont Auvergne, Montpellier and Lyon.
“France is a great place to work and it gives you a really good insight into the psychology of the French,” Wisemantel said.
“In an away game, there is an element of freedom about them. They don’t feel the pressure that they do at home.
“The second thing is how they construct a game, penalties to build the score – three, six and nine, putting the pressure on the home side. Then if they are close on 60-65 minutes they can capitalise on any mistakes.
“That’s the fundamental theory on away games in the Top 14 and they use that from an international perspective as well.”
When asked about the approach to conditioning in French rugby amid stories that players drink and smoke before games, Wisemantel said: “I have seen some crazy stuff over there!
“Their work-life balance is very different to other places. They run on emotion and you can’t let that come into the game.”
Chris Ashton will enjoy his first Six Nations start since 2013, recalling that a year ago he was resigned to having played his last game in the championship as he worked as a TV analyst.
Ashton has displaced Jack Nowell from the right wing for England’s round-two fixture against France with Eddie Jones explaining the decision by stating “we think he might sneak us an early try”.
It continues a Test rebirth that began last autumn, his return to these shores after a successful season-long spell at Toulon propelling him back onto Jones’ radar.
The 31-year-old reaches another milestone on Sunday when he will further distance himself from the four years spent marooned on 39 caps.
“I went with (former South Africa wing) JP Pietersen to commentate on France against Italy,” the Sale star said.
“At that time I’d never have thought we’d be sat here with me about to play France.
“When you’re younger and you’re in the team, you never think it’s going to be your last game.
“You think you’re going to have good, long years at it, but that wasn’t the case for me.
“I definitely understand what it’s like to not be involved and not have the shirt, so it’s a big privilege for me to be back in.
“Of course this is what I came back to England for. I got a taste of it in the autumn so I’m past that point of it being a relatively new environment.”
Ashton’s last Six Nations outing was one of the low points in English rugby history – a crushing 30-3 defeat by Wales in Cardiff that destroyed the team’s Grand Slam hopes at the final hurdle.
“It was a long time ago – and one to forget as well,” the dual code international said.
“I’ve had a good few years watching the Six Nations, it’s such a great tournament, and England have done really well over the last three years, taking out last season.
“I’ve had to sit and watch that so I’m just happy to be part of it again.”
Nowell impressed through his work-rate and carrying in the remarkable 32-20 victory over Ireland a week ago, but it is Ashton’s nose for the line that has proved decisive for the visit of France.
“You have to show an unrelenting desire to want to play for your country, which Chris has done,” said Jones, in reference to Ashton’s decision to sign for Sale in order to revive his Test career.
“He brings us something different that we think is going to be valuable at the start of the game – he’s a try poacher.”
In the only other change to the starting XV, Courtney Lawes replaces knee injury-victim Maro Itoje in the second row with Joe Launchbury offering cover from the bench.
England produced their best performance of the Jones era at the Aviva Stadium, but captain Owen Farrell hopes it is merely a stepping stone to greater achievements.
“We know we can do better. We want to see where we can take things,” Farrell said.
“We don’t want to just be good at stuff. Everyone is good at stuff. We want to see where we can take it. There will be a lot that we want to take to another level.”
Liam Williams has backed Wales head coach Warren Gatland’s selection approach to the Six Nations clash against Italy on Saturday.
Gatland made 12 changes to his starting line-up for last season’s corresponding fixture in Cardiff, and Wales launched an ongoing 10-game unbeaten run by beating the Azzurri 38-14.
This time round, it is 10 switches, with full-back Williams among only five starting survivors from the team that wiped out a 16-point deficit seven days ago to beat France 24-19.
Wales prepared for the Rome encounter with a 31-man training group during five days on the Cote d’Azur earlier this week, with Gatland utilising his squad at the start of a World Cup year.
Asked if 10 changes could be a potential risk to continuity, Williams said: “No, I don’t think so. I think it’s great.
“We have so much competition up for grabs in each position, and it’s great for us looking forward to the World Cup.
“That might be one of the reasons why Warren has changed the team. I think we will be fine at the weekend, and hopefully we will get the win.”
Recent history between Italy and Wales suggests that the visitors could enjoy a points blitz.
In the countries’ last four Six Nations games, Wales have racked up a total of 199 points, with two of their four victories seeing them score more than 60 points.
They are also on a 12-Test winning run at Italy’s expense, but Saracens star Williams has urged caution.
“We know Italy are a tough team to play against at home,” he added.
“In the last couple of times we’ve played in Rome it has been very tight in the first half and then we’ve pulled away in the second half and won the game comfortably.
“We have to play for 80 minutes. Against France we played very poorly in the first half and were much better in the second. This week we need to play for the full 80.
“Our first job is to go out there and play well as a team. If the opportunities to score four tries arise, then we have to take them.
“That is especially important in international rugby. What will be will be, but we will do our best to get one (bonus point).
“Four years ago we came out to Italy and we were winning by a point at half time, and then we went out and scored 47 points in the second half.
“I don’t think that statistic of them not winning for a long time is going to make a big difference to the game.
“Italy played very well in the second half against Scotland and came back right at the end. That shows once again that we have to play for 80 minutes, and not 40.”