Zach Mercer has a confession to make and it is bad news for the England pack who are preparing to face a French forward onslaught at Twickenham on Saturday.
At the heart of the French pack will be a fired up Paul Willemse, the giant South African born Montpellier lock, who has rediscovered his destructive form after missing five tests due to a knee injury.
Mercer, the two times capped England No8, is Willemse’s team mate at Montpellier and has been winding up the 20st, 6ft 7in lock by insisting the sport has moved on and players like the injured Cameron Woki, new French lock Thibaud Flament and the England pairing of Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum, range around the pitch like extra back row forwards.
Mercer, who is preparing to join Gloucester after a title winning period with Montpellier, told RugbyPass that while the wind up was good fun, Willemse,30, has responded by proving he is still a major force as France prepare to stage the Rugby World Cup later this season. Mercer said: “I love playing with Paul because he is massive. Paul is one of the biggest blokes I have ever come across and I am excited to see how he goes against England because we have been riling him up about the game.
“We have been winding him up that now he isn’t the traditional second row but the French love having a massive second row behind the tight head prop and that is not seen in England. I am sure Paul will want to show what he can do and he is one of the best line out maul defenders I have ever seen. He will want to stop Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum at source at the weekend.
“I have to give credit to Paul that he is actually a good jumper at the line out and I remember the first time I had to lift him I was thinking “ this is going to be painful”. But he gets up a lot easier than some lighter second rows.
“ He is big unit who has had to come back from various injuries over the years and didn’t play in the Top 14 final for us and it has been tough for him to regain fitness and he is there now. He plays 50-60 minutes for France and then they bring on another big unit in Romain Taofifenua.”
Willemse, who was born in Pretoria, missed July’s series win over Japan and victories over Australia, South Africa and the Brave Blossoms in November as France set a national record of 13 Test successes. With Racing 92 forward Woki and now former captain Anthony Jelonch (Toulouse) injured, France need Willemse to continue his improved form at Twickenham.
Also filling the gaps left by Woki and Jelonch is Charles Ollivon, the former France captain, and he is another player Mercer believes is equipped to cause England real problems after returning from a serious knee injury.
Ollivon is a late developer having been told shoulder injuries were threatening to end his career before it had even started. However, a shoulder specialist solved the issue and now, after ACL reconstruction, the Toulon flanker is once again captain Antoine Dupont’s right hand man and France’s best line out jumper.
Mercer is a big fan and added: “The way Charles has come back from that injury has been outstanding and it’s not easy to return at the top of the game. Having played against Charles, he is a smart, intelligent player and great line out operator. He is going to make it tough for England in the line out and they are going to have to mark him. If I was calling the England line out I wouldn’t go anywhere near him because he is so fast across the ground.
“Together with Antoine Dupont and Gregory Alldritt, they are the leaders in the French team. He brings not only physicality to the game but also an understanding of what is needed and the guys will get behind him. Charlies led the Barbarians to victory (52-21) against England at Twickenham last June and so its familiar territory for him and he will want another win.”
Despite his admiration for Ollivon and the wind up on Willemse, Mercer believes England can deliver their best performance of the Six Nations and continue their improvement under Steve Borthwick, the new head coach.
He said: “I think England are going to deliver a really good performance and while they haven’t played their best game yet in the Six Nations, this could be the time when we see it. It will also be the two defence coaches Kevin Sinfield and Shaun Edwards going head to head and bringing incredible line speed to the match.
“My Dad had a league back ground and was defence coach at Glasgow Warriors and they ( former rugby league players) understand defence so well and the way the French want to defend runs throughout the Top14. France have a good chance but England haven’t performed yet in the Six Nations and I believe it will be this weekend and it is about whether the French can deal with that storm. Just like Ireland did against France in Dublin, it is about how the French deal with that kind of challenge. This will be a proper test match.”