LONDON (AP) — France can throw the Six Nations wide open and preserve its unwanted reputation as the most unpredictable team in world rugby by beating England at Twickenham on Saturday.
By starting the campaign with surprise defeats to Italy and Wales, the French went from favorites to flops in the space of eight days. It's their worst start to the championship in 31 years, at a time when coach Philippe Saint-Andre was calling for an end to the national team's notorious inconsistency.
It would, however, be typical of the Tricolors to come away from Twickenham having ended the hosts' Grand Slam hopes.
"It's sometimes in the difficult times that a team gets back on its feet," Saint-Andre said on Thursday, after making eight changes to the starting side that slipped so limply to a 16-6 loss to Wales in Paris.
"We have players of the highest level who are capable of lifting their heads up and moving forward together individually and collectively."
England will have been as surprised as anyone about France's meltdown, with coach Stuart Lancaster having labeled Saint-Andre's side as the team to beat before the Six Nations.
Instead, it's the English who are carrying the burden of favorites after opening with victories over Scotland and Ireland on the first two weekends, making them the only side capable of winning the Grand Slam.
"Philippe Saint-Andre is already saying this is their Grand Slam (match)," England forwards coach Graham Rowntree said. "It will change the whole complexion of their championship if they win at the weekend and the way they will challenge us is through their forward pack."
In a bid to avoid an 11th loss in 13 tournament trips to Twickenham since 1987, France has recalled hooker Benjamin Kayser, lock Christophe Samson and flanker Yannick Nyanga to the pack. Saint-Andre hopes those changes, particularly that of Samson, will allow them to compete more effectively at the lineout.
In the backs, Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc were reinstated as the halves pairing in place of Maxime Machenaud and Frederic Michalak, whose exceptional form from the autumn internationals has disappeared.
"Frederic has started the last six games, but he's struggling a bit more than usual," Saint-Andre said. "When you put Francois at flyhalf, it's normal to play him alongside Morgan. We know the experience he has and he is a world-class kicker, and they're used to playing with each other."
Winger Vincent Clerc returns from injury to take his place on the right wing, with Wesley Fofana returning to center alongside Mathieu Bastareaud to give France a compact look in midfield.
"After two defeats, we had to make changes, increase competition and freshen things up," Saint-Andre added. "We know that the English are favorites. We will have to be brave, audacious and unpredictable."
Lancaster opted to tinker with a team that scraped out a 12-6 win over Ireland, ending a 10-year winless run in Dublin in the Six Nations.
"We believe that Dylan, Courtney and Manu are ready for the opportunity and allow us to vary our play, while the bench will add impact and energy as the game unfolds in the second half," Lancaster said.
Tuilagi didn't start the opening two games because of an ankle injury, but is back in tandem with Brad Barritt in a center combination that did so much damage in the memorable 38-21 win over New Zealand in December.
The head-to-head between Tuilagi and opposite Mathieu Bastareaud — two of the world's most powerful backs — will be one to watch.
Lawes, a lock by trade, comes in as blindside flanker for James Haskell, whose preparations for the match have been disrupted by the flu. The selection of the strapping Lawes improves England's options in the lineout, with all his previous caps having come in the second row.
Hartley supplants Tom Youngs at hooker.
England: Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown, Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (captain), Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parking, Joe Launchbury, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler. Reserves: Tom Youngs, David Wilson, Mako Vunipola, James Haskell, Thomas Waldrom, Danny Care, Toby Flood, Billy Twelvetrees.
France: Yoann Huget, Vincent Clerc, Mathieu Bastareaud, Wesley Fofana, Benjamin Fall, Francois Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra; Louis Picamoles, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Yannick Nyanga, Yoann Maestri, Christophe Samson, Nicolas Mas, Benjamin Kayser, Thomas Domingo. Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewski, Vincent Debaty, Luc Ducalcon, Jocelino Suta, Antoine Claassen, Maxime Machenaud, Frederic Michalak, Florian Fritz.