Twickenham hosts the Grand Slam decider this Saturday
France have not defeated the English in the women’s Six Nations since 2018 – and back then it was by a solitary point. But there have been plenty of close run-ins in England v France encounters down the years. In 2020, it was England by six. In 2021, England by four. In 2016, it was France by five.
The Channel may separate these two nations, but so often in the past the margin of victory has been a mere puddle. The Red Roses have had the edge on les Bleues of late, but this is quite simply the biggest rivalry in the women’s championship.
And in the final round of this year’s competition, the pair will slug it out in a stand-alone fixture at Twickenham, with a world record crowd of around 60,000 for a women’s Test all but guaranteed.
Read more: Women’s Six Nations homepage
It’s a showdown we should all know about. Which got us wondering. If these two sides are so familiar, what do they say about each other? What are the myths, analysis and memories that get spoken about on either side of the watery divide?
So ahead of kick-off on Saturday, we asked a handful of rugby voices in England and France exactly what they made of their great Six Nations enemy…
LAURA DI MUZIO – The French fly-half and sevens international turned TV commentator
“The Red Roses are currently the best female rugby team in Europe and yes, there is an English style of play – it’s a very efficient style of play.
“The English team are a very physical team, their players are intense and tough and they manage to make the difference at the end of games. They are not a team who take many risks on the pitch but their plays are neat and clean. And in four or five years, they’ve managed to create a homogeneous group of players that have grown strong over time. The English have found a very interesting way of increasing the rugby level with the new format of league, which is the best way to create a strong national team.
“We can really see the impact on the national teams after a few years and now there is a gap, and I’m not sure France can currently fill it. It’s going to be very difficult for our French team against England in the Six Nations.
“We have new and young players, as some of our best are injured or retired. And so we need to rely on our best asset: our defence! If you want to beat England, you need to be very clean in defence, not conceding many penalties.
“If you want to improve, you need to play against the best. We have the opportunity to build a new team with a new staff for the next Rugby World Cup. And I’m so proud and happy for women’s rugby that there will be a game like this. As for young players, you can look out for Charlotte Escudero (No 8). She is very young (22) and had very little experience before the World Cup, but she did great in New Zealand.”
MARJORIE MAYANS – The ex-France centre and sevens cap
“Even though the Red Roses will be without many important players, they still represent a huge threat because their strength is not on individuals but on the collective. They are able to attack all together and they are well organised. They come at you in waves – when you play them, it’s like you’re being strangled, because they attack so quickly and so often. If you stop an attack, there is another one coming. It can feel kind of endless.
“And even if Emily Scarratt and Zoe Harrison are injured, they still have very young and talented players to come because the Premier 15s is somewhere new talent can be grown. So they have a lot of depth in their group. And I really love the back row and Alex Matthews – I’ve played her at 15s and sevens and I have a lot of respect for her. So powerful, so fast. She’s a big threat.
“They also have very powerful front-rowers, which is a big advantage for the maul – they are so powerful.
“My only reservation is that losing Scarratt can have a mental impact on the back-line, and maybe their confidence in attack. So that is something we will have to follow, but I have no doubt the Red Roses will produce a collective, precise game.”
ALEX MATTHEWS – The England back-row who was a titanic figure at this season’s World Cup
“It’s the battle of the season whenever we meet, isn’t it! Whether that’s at age grade or seniors, everyone loves an England-France clash. I think the passion they bring and joue they want to play with, that’s always a challenge so we are looking forward to facing that.
“With them, anything’s on. They’re chipping it. They’re offloading it. They’re kicking for a lineout or driving maul. They’ve got so many options. It’s almost ‘How can we impose our game on them and win the momentum shifts?’
“Every game we play it always feels so much closer than the score reflects, which is crazy to think. You’d have to ask France why they think we’ve had the edge lately! Because they give their all over 80 minutes whereas some nations, they’ll drop off for the last 20 and we can we look at all the data around that. I dunno, is it the kicking battles? I think maybe it comes down to consistency sometimes with them, but it’s hard because they are such a good team and threaten all around the park.
“Their kicking game definitely challenges us the most. I know the back three get worked extra hard the week leading into France. So their kicking game asks a lot of questions of us and the work-rate of our pack, to be honest. Going back and forth. It’s the worst!
“I‘ve loved playing France. My first cap was over in France. You know they’re always going to bring it and I love the atmosphere as well, when it’s an away game. Running out for my 50th cap I was booed and I was like, ‘that’s amazing!’ I’d hate running out in front of a crowd normally, but the fact it was in front of people booing, it’s amazing!”
NOLLI WATERMAN – The World Cup-winning full-back who is now a commentator and pundit
“I’m really intrigued to see how the French turn up on the back of a pretty tough year at times last year. They’ve got new coaches coming in (Gaëlle Mignot and David Ortiz). I think they’re going to be gunning for it. And yeah, they have wonderful talent, experience and youth, and they are a physical side. So I think they are class.
“I’ve played in very, very, very strong England teams that have been turned over by the French and the one thing that you can guarantee about this fixture is that you can’t guarantee the result, which is awesome. There’s a skill level the French have, a physicality. They’ve gone and won games outside of the Six Nations – they’ve beaten the likes of the Black Ferns. So for them to come to Twickenham and do it, there is no better challenge for them to step up.”
SIMON VALZER – Rugby reporter for Midi Olympique
“I won’t surprise you about the perception of the English in France. I remember covering the World Cup in New Zealand, and I asked the French coaches about England and it was already predictable. They knew the English team would kick it very far, get the lineout and then driving mauls from there. There have been very predictable for the last few years. But this year they are without some big names and they may have to change the game plan.
“Abbie Ward is missing (due to pregnancy) and I think she’s the best second-row in the world. Scarratt has such an impact on everything they do in the back-line. So we may see change.
“You can know what England bring– but you have to stop it. I’ve asked the French players about this and it’s very frustrating for them. I remember the game in Bayonne (last season) and France really tried to muscle up their pack because they knew what they were about to do with the maul. But they had no chance. I don’t think that the Red Roses really struggled to win.
“Some of the French girls have told me that some of the English talk a lot to them on the field. Everybody knows that this is the biggest game.”
NICK HEATH – Women’s Six Nations commentator
“England will expect a free-playing, offloading, quick reloading kind of game. The French have an all-court game. They are going to miss (retired scrum-half) Laure Sansus but still have Pauline Bourdon, who knows the script and will play that game.
“There were some other big retirements, like Safi N’Diaye. Although she wasn’t a starter for the last few years, she was a big presence and it got the crowd going to see her coming off the bench, so there’s a touch of the unknown for France. But I think they’ve got what it takes up front.
“Gabby Vernier is brilliant. She’s not the biggest 12 – probably one of the smaller 12s in the whole championship – but she’s full of creativity. And they’re probably looking at that England 10-12 decision point and thinking that they can disrupt there. But they are a page or two short of the clarity England have.”
This article was first published in the May 2023 issue of Rugby World.
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