Praise can make you weak. Eddie Jones threw that comment at Ireland last week as a warning about living up to expectations.
Those expectations were then shattered by Jones’ England side as they smashed the Irish in Dublin to kick off the Six Nations.
Naturally, praise has been showered on England for producing its best rugby performance since 2012 when it thrashed New Zealand 38-21 at Twickenham.
Having been hailed far and wide for the remarkable all-round triumph, its England’s turn to cope with all of the pats on the back, to switch from underdog to favorite before France turns up on Sunday at Twickenham.
“By Sunday we’ll be at our best,” Jones promises.
To prove all the praise has had no effect won’t be easy, especially when England isn’t in hostile territory but back in the cozy comforts of home. Its victory has enlarged the target on its back, with four rounds to go.
“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” hooker Jamie George says. “We must realize that we can’t just rest on that win, believing that because we’ve produced one good performance we’ll be winning the World Cup. We need to build on this.”
The good news — and bad news — is the next opponent is France.
France should have sunk Wales last week in the rain in Paris, but Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez missed 13 points off the tee, and Yoann Huget and Sebastian Vahaamahina gave away two converted tries. Wales, without really firing a shot, won by five points.
Instead of just replacing injured backs Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard, and prop Uini Atonio, and showing some faith, coach Jacques Brunel has prolonged the turmoil the team can’t escape by tearing it apart and asking new combinations to hit the ground running in a stadium where France hasn’t won in 12 years.
He’s brought Geoffrey Daymourou and Mathieu Bastareaud into the centers, apparently to counter the considerable threat of Manu Tuilagi. They are the only survivors of the backline which beat England last year in Paris. But two more centers are on the wings in Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud. Meanwhile, Huget has been moved to fullback, where the wing hasn’t started for France in almost six years.
Center Romain Ntamack and lock Paul Willemse, who made their debuts against Wales, have been demoted to the reserves.
The French pack was huge and surprisingly mobile against Wales but flanker Yacouba Camara has been given his first cap since the 2018 Six Nations, and lock Felix Lambey and tighthead prop Demba Bamba will make their first starts. Bamba will be marking Mako Vunipola. Of Bamba, Brunel says, “He’s come up against a few good players.” But not Vunipola, who almost subdued the Ireland pack on his own.
If any rescuing is required, France’s reserves offer 25 caps of experience in total. Toulouse prop Dorian Aldegheri and fullback Thomas Ramos are uncapped, and four others have one cap each. Brunel says, “I expect them to bring their enthusiasm late in the game.”
England winger Chris Ashton, who has lost twice to France and never scored against them, expects the Tricolors to be desperate after blowing the Wales game.
“It will be an angry French team,” he says. “They love a reaction.”
Ashton set the Top 14 try-scoring record in his lone season with Toulon in 2016-17, and believes the Top 14 doesn’t prepare the French for test rugby.
“The Top 14 is a slow stop-start game. It’s not anywhere near (test level),” he says. “Maybe that step up shocks them in that first couple of games, but they will get up to speed very quickly.”
If praise can make you weak, then criticism can make you strong. Ashton better hope “very quickly” isn’t on Sunday.