For the first time since Eddie Jones took charge, England go into a Test with their backs to the wall. It will be a mighty test of character.
When England last faced such a situation, they were sent crashing out of their own World Cup in 2015. In the ensuing golden period of English prosperity, there have been only two defeats.
The 13-9 loss to Ireland at the end of last year’s championship did not lead to a wounded-beasts backlash, because so many leading men were called away to be Lions in New Zealand. This time it is different.
Eddie Jones’ England have their backs against the wall ahead of facing France on Saturday
Scotland upset England 25-13 to claim the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield a fortnight ago
After the shock 25-13 setback against Scotland, England need a reaction. Adversity has been an absent foe of late, but it is back to focus the minds of the visitors at the Stade de France on Saturday.
Jones will demand his players deliver resounding proof that his grand plan is on track, that the Edinburgh result was a blip and that confidence remains strong within the camp.
‘It is an important game,’ said the head coach. ‘The importance of it is how we respond to the loss. It is the first time we have had the team together after a loss.’
Jones and his assistants have reshuffled their back line, with Ben Te’o brought in to start at outside centre, in order to do a destructive man-marking job on the Gallic midfield wrecking ball Mathieu Bastareaud.
Te’o showed in the first Lions Test last year how well he can handle such duties, by smashing Sonny Bill Williams halfway into the following week.
Ben Te’o has been drafted back into outside centre to counter Mathieu Bastareuad
The explosive cross-coder is well aware of the significance of today’s encounter.
‘There’s a lot riding on this — it’s our opportunity to put right the last game,’ he said. ‘We’re on a long journey to the World Cup.
‘There will be times when there’s a stumbling block and you have to look at yourself and learn. We must get better at assessing things mid-game and changing tactics.’
That ability to adapt on the hoof is urgently needed. Assessing France and Bastareaud, Te’o added: ‘It’s a fierce rivalry and we’re two physical teams across the water from each other, so there are going to be fireworks.
‘I’m a big guy but I’m up against a bigger guy! You don’t see many midfielders of Bastareaud’s size running around. He’s big but he can move. He’s strong and has an off-load.
‘I watched him the other week and he was destructive. We’ll have a job on our hands to stop him. Fingers crossed I’ll have the opportunity to get in there.’
Te’o admits he’ll be coming up against a ‘bigger guy’ in the shape of Bastareaud in Paris
England’s present and future could unfold together. Owen Farrell as captain, Jamie George starting at hooker and Anthony Watson wearing No 15 — these were all developments expected at some point in the future, but the stars have aligned now.
If England lose, those changes may prove fleeting, while casting doubt on the progress of the whole World Cup project.
But if Jones’s side perform well and the changes pay off, it will be intriguing to see if Dylan Hartley, Mike Brown and Jonathan Joseph all return.
Putting aside the sub-plots, the English title defence is hanging by a thread, with Ireland forging towards a Grand Slam shot at Twickenham a week on Saturday.
First, England have to avoid back-to-back defeats. But if they are going to finish top of the pile again, they will need tries.
Despite the presence of a high-octane back three — Watson, Elliot Daly and Jonny May — that task may hinge on more earthy qualities.
After a dire return at Murrayfield, England need their driving game to be far more effective against a big French pack.
Owen Farrell will captain England at the Stade de France in place of Dylan Hartley
Elliot Daly (left) and Anthony Watson are two-thirds of a high-octane back three for England
They also need to guard against a repeat of the breakdown horrors which afflicted them in Scotland, although Les Bleus lack men with the poaching pedigree of John Barclay and Hamish Watson.
What the hosts do have is a magnificent captain in Guilhem Guirado, a dangerous scrum and the blasting Bastareaud.
But they are lacking key men and sufficient fitness to maintain peak intensity for 80 minutes, which means England’s trademark last-quarter surge could prove decisive in their quest for a bonus-point win.
England’s backs are to the wall and how they respond will have far-reaching implications.