England v France, Six Nations, Twickenham, February 26
Leonard: England will ignore mind games
February 24, 2011
Jason Leonard enjoyed a number of battles with France, including at the 2003 Rugby World Cup © Getty Images
England legend Jason Leonard has insisted that Martin Johnson's men will pay no heed to the verbal grenades tossed their way by France coach Marc Lievremont earlier this week.
The rivals will go head-to-head at Twickenham on Saturday in a game that has been tipped by many as the decider in this season's Six Nations, with Lievremont opting to stir the pot further by declaring that 'we all don't like the English.'
Leonard, who played 114 times for England including some of their most fractious encounters with France in the early 1990s, has insisted however that the feeling of resentment between the nations has dissipated since the switch to professionalism.
"The French side of it is part of the game now," he said. "You tend to throw a few grenades before the games. Look what happened with [Warren] Gatland before the England-Wales game a few weeks back. I think the English side won't get dragged into anything like that.
"This game is an important game, they are highly motivated for every game. I don't really think England need any more motivation to play France at Twickenham. For both teams there is a possible Championship or Grand Slam at the end of it. The England players will literally put their heads down and work.
"In the early 90s it was a bit like what Lievremont said. England and France really didn't like each other. I think that's not really the case now, not as much as he's saying. If you have a look there's a lot of English guys playing in the French league and a lot of French guys playing in the English league.
"I think that because of that relationships are far better than what they were in previous years. There was an all-time low when I was playing, but that's not the case now."
With two unbeaten teams and two heavyweight packs on display there will be little room for manoeuvre come kick-off, but Leonard expects England to take the sting out of a French scrummage that decimated a much-vaunted Scotland set-piece in the opening round of fixtures.
"Most probably it will be an even scrummage," he said. "France were dominant against Scotland but can I see England being steam-rolled like that? No, not in a million years. Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley, and I'm guessing Sheridan will come in - do I see these players being pushed about by the French? No, definitely not. The game will be hinged on other aspects of play, hopefully scoring tries, which both sides have done in abundance in previous games."
England's star turn so far this tournament has come from Northampton winger Chris Ashton who, ably supported by maturing fly-half Toby Flood, has already bagged six tries in two matches. Leonard is pleased that England's game has matured to this level, where their attacking nous is sufficient to potentially punish a French side boasting a number of changes in key positions.
"The way Chris is performing in the last couple of games, he'll be looking at everything," he said. "He seems to be popping up everywhere really. I think there were a couple of missed tackles made [against Ireland] and if Ashton, Mark Cueto and Ben Foden can exploit that I'm sure they will.
"The potential has been there for a while. Even if you had a look back at Delon Armitage who was there before that. These players can actually make something happen. The most important thing is are they going to get enough ball to make that happen? The French are coached by Dave Ellis, who's a very good defensive coach, and I'm sure he'll be looking at ways to shut the English attack down."
Leonard also believes that the RFU's faith in Martin Johnson, under whom he won the World Cup in 2003, is beginning to bear fruit as the game's showpiece in New Zealand nears.
"Staying with Johnno was always going to be the option," he said. "You can't get rid of a guy. There's been so much change and no continuity in that England side. Martin Johnson I believe has brought that with his managerial staff, his players and he's stuck by people and we're seeing the benefits of that coming through. I think Martin Johnson has done a very good job and hopefully he can take us through to the forthcoming World Cup and do a good job there.
"Let's be quite honest, New Zealand are the team to beat and I think we're all playing catch-up to them. It's really a case of us being best prepared to get to the World Cup and hit the ground running. There will be a lot of pressure on New Zealand, being in New Zealand, the question is, will they choke?"
Jason Leonard was appearing on behalf of FairPlay, a partnership between Wooden Spoon, Barclays Spaces for Sports and the RFU. To find out more email firstname.lastname@example.org.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.