Rugby

Why France beating England would be good for the Women’s Six Nations

The Women’s Six Nations can be an exercise in delayed gratification. In the evolutionary phase in which the championship finds itself, it is unfortunate that we must wait until the final weekend to contemplate the prospect of three genuinely competitive fixtures.

But a Super Saturday headlined by a title fight between two undefeated heavyweights to close the tournament. There will hopefully come a time where it is less of a foregone conclusion that England and France will meet on the final weekend in a grand slam decider, but having this fixture to showcase and sell can be an asset. There has been palpable excitement in the Red Roses camp this week, John Mitchell’s side riding high after slicing Ireland to bits at Twickenham last Saturday and relishing an opportunity to test themselves against a side capable of matching them.

“It is what we train hard for,” said number eight Alex Matthews. “It is what we’ve wanted, that competition, that challenge and I am looking forward to coming together and rising to it.

“They always show up against us and bring another level. We want that challenge. We want to keep improving and seeing what we can do and seeing whether we can show up on the day.”

There have been times during this campaign where England have looked swept along by a wave of positivity, a happy camp on and off the pitch reflected in expressive, exuberant performances. It has helped, of course, that they have been able to imprint their revamped rugby brand rather readily on a series of overmatched opponents, but the coaching staff and squad deserve credit for how they’ve worked out the clunks to hit top gear at the right time.

Can they operate with the same freedom and fluency against a better drilled, better built French side? “We do have a particular way that we want to play,” Mitchell stressed on Thursday, suggesting that little will change with his side’s approach. “It’s a game that’s working and we think it’s the right way.

“We’ve got better as the tournament has progressed and who said there are limits on the style that we produced last weekend? We have the ability to dial it up again. It certainly won’t be stopping. It will continue to evolve.”

Mitchell maintains continuity in his side, his one change enforced with Lark Atkin-Davies absent with an ankle injury. Amy Cokayne is back from suspension to fill her hooking boots; for the fourth game in a row, the backline is unchanged.

“It’s the best team mix,” explained Mitchell. “We’ve got some advantages in terms of mobility and that’s critical to the way we play.

“They’ll be buoyed by the fact they’re at home but we’re actually looking forward to embracing that challenge. It’s another full capacity stadium so we get another opportunity to do that, which gives us energy too. That’s what drives the girls, they want to play in front of full capacity. We know what they’re going to present.”

This is a fixture that England have come to dominate, 12 wins on the spin, including eight one-score games. The obvious conclusion from that run is that a scarred France are coming up psychologically short, a series of near misses taking their toll and dulling the belief.

But one could equally conclude that France are due a significant result. If Gaelle Mignot and David Ortiz will confess that their side haven’t maybe shown their best in this campaign, they have a habit of raising their game when England are in town. A bouncing, barracking Bordelais crowd are sure to help in that regard.

Where England have typically relied on their forward might to tilt these games their way, it may be that it is France up for an arm-wrestle – the returning of Gaelle Hermet, tough and experienced, to the starting back row perhaps reflects a desire to keep things tight. There aren’t many women’s rugby sides that can go toe-to-toe with England’s front eight; Les Bleues are quietly confident they might have the edge up front.

“The group really can’t wait to see what we can do against England,” captain Manae Feleu said on match eve. “We are all competitors in the team. It’s really special to be able to play here in France and have 27,000 people coming to watch. It’s a record for France, so it’s really special to play a game like that in those conditions.”

There is a wider conversation to be had about whether a French win would be good for the sport. England’s tournament dominance remains the hot topic in women’s rugby, one that is kept somewhat in check by the fact that France – despite the run of defeats – have been able to maintain pace.

If a gap opens between the top two, as some fear may occur if England continue to accelerate, the problems posed by the Red Roses’ monopoly will be exacerbated. There are signs that France recognise the need to develop themselves to stay in touch: a long-awaited revamp of their domestic top league to move towards a model that greater resembles England’s world-leading Premiership Women’s Rugby, while their Under-20s dismantled their English counterparts 74-0 in Rouen last week to evidence the talent coming through.

But after all the talk about how to redress the competitive balance of the championship, a win would be a significant, and perhaps needed, step in proving that England aren’t accelerating out of sight.

Xural.com

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