We look ahead to the Women's Six Nations showdown in Bayonne
La Crunch! France v England Grand Slam decider
Oh, that tackle. If ever there was a moment that epitomised the moniker given to fixtures between France and England, it was Rose Bernadou’s, er, crunching hit on Poppy Cleall in last year’s Six Nations. It was a tackle that emphasised the intense rivalry between the Red Roses and les Bleues – the two nations that have dominated the northern hemisphere scene for so long.
Over the past 20 years, England or France have won every Women’s Six Nations title bar two (Ireland were champions in 2013 and 2015 to break the stranglehold) – and more often than not they have sealed a Grand Slam too. Since 2002, England have 12 titles, including the last three, to France’s six.
This weekend they meet in Bayonne on ‘Super Saturday’, with yet another championship title on the line. We look ahead to four key components to the France v England Grand Slam decider.
England are on a nine-match winning streak against France, their last defeat in Grenoble in 2018 by the margin of a single point. A third of those victories were by ten-plus points but four were by only two, illustrating exactly how tight these fixtures are.
And some of those results were secured with the last play. Take Exeter 2019: Lydia Thompson’s 79th-minute try was decisive. Or Twickenham 2020, when a late Emily Scarratt penalty proved the difference.
It’s little surprise that France captain Gaelle Hermet stresses the importance of an 80-minute performance when we ask how her side can end that losing run.
“We’ve played against them a few times now, so we know each other well,” says the 25-year-old back-rower with a wry smile. “We know they’re very combative; they’re one of the best teams in rugby and we’re fully aware of that.
“It’s up to us to play well and catch them out. England are pragmatic, so we are aware we have to contend with that to beat them. And we have to work on controlling the game from beginning to end because there is no room for error.”
Scrum-half Natasha Hunt, who is back in the Red Roses set-up having not been involved throughout 2021, talks of the “mental advantage” England have from that run, of how they have found ways to win when trailing late on. It’s become something of a sporting cliché but winning – and losing – is a habit; it creates belief (or damages it).
Given these two sides meet again in Whangarei in October during the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup, and likely at some point in the knockouts, there is added significance to this result, probably more so for the French. If they can’t overcome this mental roadblock in front of a bouncing home crowd in Bayonne (more of which later), how can they expect to do so in New Zealand?
Both teams were dominant against the Black Ferns in the autumn, with the reigning world champions suffering four successive defeats – and big ones at that.
Both teams also come into this weekend’s fixture on the back of four straight bonus-point victories in the championship, albeit that England have recorded far bigger scorelines in extending their winning run to 22 consecutive Tests. That is what has set up this France v England Grand Slam decider.
Hermet recognises there are more improvements to be made from a French perspective. “We have three successive victories against New Zealand now (the other in 2019) and that has given us a lot of confidence, a lot of foundation,” she says. “That was the first step; the second stage is the run-up to the World Cup.
“England are in our pool and it’s important for us to play against them in the Six Nations, to continue to do good work and to see how we’re pacing ourselves. This match in the Six Nations will be an opportunity to validate ourselves, to prove ourselves. We want to play competitive rugby and why not bring the trophy home?”
If France are to lift the trophy for the first time since 2018, one area that needs to improve is their decision-making. Take those aforementioned last-gasp defeats: it was a poor clearance kick that presented England with the space to run the ball back and set up the Thompson try, while ill-discipline gave Scarratt the opportunity to kick the crucial three points.
As France winger Cyrielle Banet told Rugby World earlier this year: “In the past few seasons it’s come down to fine margins and the faults have been ours, so we have to work on putting those things right. Above all, we need to stay focused for the full 80 minutes and be more lucid in our decision-making.”
There is an array of gifted ball players in this French team, players like Banet, Caroline Boujard and Jessy Tremouliere who can scythe through defences and create incredible tries. But that game awareness – knowing when to break and when to take the safer option – is not as strong as England’s right now.
One of England backs coach Scott Bemand’s mottos is “world-class basics”. It’s perfecting those simple skills before adding any flashier elements, and learning when and where to use them during a match. In contrast, France can be more about the unique skills, that flair we so often hear of, although that’s not the word Hunt would use.
She says: “People always talk about French flair but for me it’s not necessarily flair, it’s seeing what each player’s super-strengths are. The structure and processes that pretty much every rugby union team plays means that they don’t really look to do different things to fit skill-sets, it’s all within a framework. France celebrate what individuals are good at and play to the strengths of their players.”
That’s why matches against them can be so hard to predict, with Hunt going on to say: “It’s always a massive tactical battle, probably the biggest we face. New Zealand come really hard with pick-and-goes, then ship it wide. With France, you never know what you’ll face, what’s going to come first. It’s having the tools to deal with it. I massively enjoy that tactical battle, of playing in the right areas to come away with a result.”
England have led the way in terms of their kicking strategy for the past few years and France have developed that side of their own game too. These two teams now have the best kicking games in women’s rugby, so expect that to come into play in this match. Hunt will likely be to the fore as the best kicking nine at England’s disposal.
Of course, in France the scrum-half is often the main playmaker, the one who dictates the tempo and makes the calls. In recent years, they have chopped and changed between Pauline Bourdon and Laure Sansus in that position, sometimes even playing them together at nine and ten. The inconsistency in that key role is probably not ideal when building a side to challenge for trophies.
Still, Bourdon has missed the Six Nations due to a finger injury and in her stead Sansus has proved key to French fortunes. Her six tries in the tournament to date make her the top scorer and she is arguably vying with Marlie Packer for the Player of the Championship gong.
Hunt is wary of the threat she brings ball in hand, saying: “Sansus probably has the more well-rounded game – she can kick, is brilliant at sniping and has a hell of a pass on her. She seems to have it all. She’s a running nine and tests defences.”
Bemand and the other Red Roses coaches will undoubtedly be thinking of a plan to counteract Sansus’s impact. He says: “There are certainly places on the pitch that can be a real danger, the set-piece, for example, where she could pick off the scrum or back of a lineout. That’s the challenge given to us, thinking about our system and roles and how we can influence that kind of threat to suit us. It’s a good challenge.”
When France came to the Stoop for the final of 2021’s condensed championship, they had a clear edge at scrum time. The power of Bernadou was key to that, particularly as England were without their first-choice tighthead, Sarah Bern.
The dominance the visitors were able to exert was a clear concern for the Red Roses and there have been notable improvements since Louis Deacon arrived as forwards coach in August. They overwhelmed the Black Ferns both in the scrum and the lineout last year, with their driving maul becoming a powerful weapon.
Yet, while they had the upper hand against New Zealand, France will provide a sterner test once more, particularly given the standard of their set-piece in this year’s championship.
“They’re our biggest rival in the world currently and the set-piece will be crucial in this fixture,” says Zoe Aldcroft, World Rugby Women’s XVs Player of the Year. “It’s definitely about who can be the most physically dominant team on that day. They have a massive pack and we have to really front up to them.”
Everyone we spoke to from the Red Roses set-up for this piece has a story about the quirks of playing in France, whether it’s parachutists landing among the players during a warm-up, local dignitaries taking a ceremonial kick-off, brass bands playing throughout…
One thing everyone agrees on is how good the atmosphere is at matches in France. Tickets for the match at Stade Jean Dauger sold out a few weeks back and although there will be fewer people in attendance than the record crowds at Kingsholm and Welford Road for England’s past two matches because of redevelopment work at the stadium, it will definitely be noisy.
“It’s Basque country, the home of rugby, so we’re expecting it to be very loud and raucous,” says Hermet. “The public support when we play at home is unbelievable. Emotions run high and it’s a great strength to feel the excitement of the public behind us.”
It’s set to be a huge occasion, with celebrations planned to mark the 20th anniversary of les Bleues’ first Slam in 2002 and events going on around the stadium. Johnnie Beattie, the former Scotland No 8 who spent four years playing for Bayonne and still lives in the area, offers a brilliant insight into what match day is like in the South of France.
“I expect it to be absolutely superb spectacle-wise for the Six Nations, especially off the back of what the men have done in the past 24 months,” he says. “The appetite for rugby in general is huge and therefore people will come out in their droves and there will be a carnival atmosphere, which we always expect in these parts.
“This is rugby heartland. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching academy sides, female rugby, men’s rugby, Top 14… They really rally behind and get round their teams because it’s such a big day out as well. They’re there to support their compatriots but they’re also there for the day. Rugby is such a big part of the community and the weekend; they absolutely love it.”
All is set for a cracking La Crunch.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 edition of Rugby World.
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