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6N: Leadership issues dog buildup to England vs France

March 11, 2021 GMT

LONDON (AP) — As England and France prepare to meet on Saturday in a much-anticipated Six Nations match at Twickenham, their long buildup has been dogged by leadership issues.

An ironic outbreak of the coronavirus in the French camp — with blame apportioned to infected coach Fabien Galthie, the architect of France’s resurgence — forced their opening home match against Scotland two weeks ago to be postponed, and jeopardized the team’s continued participation while it sat atop the Six Nations table.

Meanwhile, England’s title defense blew up in a second defeat in three rounds because of team-wide ill-discipline alongside the poor form of Saracens club players in whom coach Eddie Jones has maintained blind faith.

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France was supposed to be in the strictest bio-secure bubble of the tournament after its government closed its border to the British in January to try and keep out the more contagious U.K. variant of the virus. The government relented to allowing the Tricolors to play in the Six Nations only after France Rugby Federation officials guaranteed sticking to the health protocols.

But before the opening game against Italy in Rome on Feb. 6, players left the hotel bubble to eat waffles. And the day after the game, Galthie went to watch his son play rugby. A week later, a day after a milestone win in Dublin over Ireland, Galthie and another staffer tested positive. In the following days, 12 players and two more staff members tested positive and the Scotland match on Feb. 28 was put off.

A government-ordered internal investigation saw FFR president Bernard Laporte defend Galthie — “He was outside and masked” — and the government accept the FFR’s findings. And Laporte promised nobody will be leaving hotels for the rest of the tournament.

Speaking publicly this week for the first time since the outbreak, Galthie said he did not feel responsible and that he followed the rules. He repeated Laporte’s mantra that “zero risk does not exist.”

Following a regulation quarantine, the team has been cleared of the virus with the bonus return of previously injured star backs Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa. Ntamack is in the reserves after a double fractured jaw, and Vakatawa is the starting center after a knee injury on the tournament’s eve.

The creative Mathieu Jalibert has kept the No. 10 jersey, and lock Romain Taofifenua, flanker Dylan Cretin, and wing Teddy Thomas have been given starts.

Jones’ reaction to losing to Wales by a record 40-24 was to drop hooker Jamie George and fullback Elliot Daly — both Saracens — and lock Jonny Hill. Calls for Jones to pick in-form club players such as Daly’s replacement, Max Malins, have been wasted because the coach is limited to a self-isolating squad of 28.

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But that hasn’t stopped criticism of Jones for relying on his core Saracens club players Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Mako and Billy Vunipola, George, and Daly. Jones trusted their professionalism to overcome a lack of rugby for two months going into the Six Nations. But their rustiness showed, and continues to. All have been off their game.

No. 8 Billy Vunipola admitted before the Wales game he was playing “rubbish,” then made 43 post-impact meters, the most of any forward in Round 3, and third best in the tournament, according to Opta Sports.

Itoje has conceded 10 penalties in the tournament, five alone against Wales. Jones didn’t say whether Itoje was one of the “three or four” players who phoned him last week to take responsibility for the indiscipline, but admitted his star lock would be marked for extra attention from referees, along with England, which has conceded 41 penalties across three matches.

Jones also believed refs will have preconceived notions about captain Farrell’s confrontational attitude. Jones said this week that Farrell, captain since 2018, was still learning to be a good one, and they remained happy with his leadership.

Farrell led England to Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup success less than six months ago, but on Saturday they find themselves at acute risk of a third defeat in four matches.

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Lineups:

England: Max Malins, Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell (captain), Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Mark Wilson, Charlie Ewels, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Jamie George, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Jonny Hill, Ben Earl, Dan Robson, Ollie Lawrence, Elliot Daly.

France: Brice Dulin, Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gaël Fickou, Damian Penaud, Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont; Grégory Alldritt, Charles Ollivon (captain), Dylan Cretin, Paul Willemse, Romain Taofifenua, Mohamed Haouas, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille. Reserves: Camille Chat, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Dorian Aldegheri, Cyril Cazeaux, Cameron Woki, Anthony Jelonch, Baptiste Serin, Romain Ntamack.

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