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We preview England v France

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It is November but England coach Clive Woodward received a timely present from Santa this weekend when a certain Mr Richard Hill dropped down the chimney at Chez Woodward.

Hill, England’s silent assassin, was declared fit for this weekend’s World Cup semi-final, here in Sydney, and it is the best news Woodward could have received.

In the months before the tournament many of England’s opponents accused England of being a one-man team. That one man being Jonny Wilkinson but Hill is the player England have missed the most at this World Cup.

Woodward has been unable to select him since he limped off – with a hamstring injury – in the first match of the tournament, against Georgia.And up until that point Hill was the one player that Woodward would never drop.

A year ago when England were starting the run-in to the World Cup will Autumn internationals against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia he constantly tinkered with his back row.

At the time England did everything to accommodate the undoubted talents of Lewis Moody, leaving both Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio out of those games but never Hill. He was the player Woodward knew he couldn’t do without.

Well Woodward has had to manage without him in this World Cup so far and it is the main reason why England have failed to hit the form they showed in the Six Nations and in the summer, when they beat New Zealand and Australia on their own soil.

Every fan of a Zurich Premiership club knows exactly how good Hill is, as he is the one player you don’t want to see on the Saracens team sheet, when they are playing your team.The back row battle could decide Sunday’s semi-final as Hill, Back and Dallaglio go head-to-head with Serge Betsen, Olivier Magne and Imanol Harinordoquy.

Hill will of course be influential in that battle in his own right but the most important thing is that he will do the unseen work that will allow Dallaglio and Back to do the damage elsewhere. Dallaglio said: “It's a big boost for him and the team. It's the first time we've been at full strength since playing Georgia (in the Pool matches).

“France and England know each other very well, there are no secrets. We will have to be at our best. It will be a very different game to anything we've seen so far in the World Cup. France play a very territorial game and they have a very strong, attacking front five. Confrontation in the pack will be the telling point of the game."

Woodward added: “He (Hill) is a wonderful player. The back row will be one hell of a clash on Sunday and I know who my money is on.”

Hill is one of four changes to the England starting line-up, from the side that kicked off against Wales last weekend. And they are going into the game having lost just once – to France – in their last 20 Test matches.

Another significant piece of good news arrived from the medical team in midweek when Josh Lewsey was returned to the starting line-up at full-back, allowing Jason Robinson to move to the wing.Mike Catt’s stunning performance against Wales as a second half substitute means he starts the game and Trevor Woodman, as expected returns to the front row instead of Jason Leonard.

“This is a my strongest team,” said Woodward, “and I have all 30 players fit for the first time in this World Cup, which is a tremendous boost.”

France – who were just one of two sides along with New Zealand to win a maximum 20 points after the pool matches – have the luxury of naming an unchanged team from the one that beat Ireland to make the semi-finals.

France and England have met twice at the Rugby World Cup. England won 19-10 at Parc des Princes, Paris in a 1991 Quarter Final. And France evened things up winning 19-9 at Loftus Versfeld in the 1995 3rd/4th play-off.

Prediction: England by 10 pointsTotal points scored: 50-55Key battle to watch: The two back rowsFirst try-scorer: Neil Back – England

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