Billy Vunipola has urged England to fly out of the blocks at Twickenham on Sunday, warning his teammates they cannot afford to let France build up a head of steam.
England are hot favourites for victory against France, who collapsed to a humiliating defeat by Wales last Friday and have not won a Six Nations match at Twickenham since 2005. Against Wales, France raced into a 16-0 half-time lead, only to capitulate after the break, prompting Jacques Brunel to make six changes and recall Mathieu Bastareaud.
“They’re massive blokes and if you give them momentum they’re tough to stop,” said Vunipola. “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.
“What Wales showed us was how not to start a game. If you give them a leg up then they’re 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.”
While Billy Vunipola was an injury absentee during last year’s competition, his brother Mako started all five matches, including the 22-16 defeat in Paris. “Last year wasn’t great, that’s my last memory of them,” he said. “It’s disappointing because we started really well, got into the game early doors and we gave them a chance. They only need a sniff and they took over. When they get momentum they are very difficult to stop. We’re under no illusions it will be a tough challenge but we’re looking forward to it.
“[A fast start] is crucial, not just because of France but nowadays it is very difficult to wrestle momentum back. Last week was kind of a slow burner but we got off to great start with a try from Jonny. That was pleasing, but Ireland came back into it so for us the focus is get a great start and we have got to keep on top of them. The French only need one possession, a piece of magic or one split-second of a loss of concentration from us and they can score points. They are a great side and we are looking forward to what they can bring.”
France’s second-half performance against Wales again raised questions over their fitness – often a criticism of Les Bleus – but the England attack coach, Scott Wisemantel, believes that is an outdated myth. Wisemantel has held a number of jobs in France with Clermont, Lyon and Montpellier and also expects on Sunday’s opponents to play with more freedom away from home.
“It was a great place to work and it gives you a really good insight into the psychology of the French. In an away game, there is an element of freedom about them. They don’t feel the pressure that they do at home. 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. They run on emotion and you can’t let that come into the game.
“The mentality has changed with the top teams where most of their players are coming from. If you look at Clermont, there is an expectation to win away from home. Toulouse – this year they have reinvigorated the way they play and the Top 14 has changed a lot this year. The French game has come a full circle with some of the better teams.
“With a lot of the foreign coaches that are there, the fitness regimes aren’t too bad. With Clermont they have always had force in strength and conditioning coaches so there is no sort of surprise that they are always there or there about.”