'Humble & hungry' part-timers France ready for England in potential title decider
|Women’s Six Nations: England v France|
|Venue: Castle Park, Doncaster Date: Sunday, 10 February Kick-off: 12:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra and online; text updates on the BBC Sport website and app.|
England’s game against France on Sunday has been called a Women’s Six Nations decider by many, and with good reason.
France are the Grand Slam holders, but the hosts sit one place higher in the world rankings at second.
“We prepare for every match as if we’re preparing for a World Cup final,” said France captain Gaelle Hermet.
That phrase can be overused in sport, but after just one point separated the two sides in last year’s competition, Hermet and Les Bleues may have the right idea.
Professionals v part-timers
Twenty-four France players received part-time contracts in November, meaning they must balance rugby with studies or work – the side has police officers, teachers and shop assistants among its ranks.
The full-time contracts awarded to 28 England players in January have put a target on the side’s back, but forward Poppy Cleall emphasised their impact on the squad’s togetherness.
“There’s certainly a stronger bond within the group,” she said. “That helps when you’re playing a team sport and when there’s a point in it and you need one big play.”
France’s fanatical followers
France attracted over 17,000 supporters for last year’s Six Nations game against England in Grenoble, and for their first victory against New Zealand since 1991 in November.
England’s autumn Test in Doncaster set a new English record for a ticketed standalone game, but the crowd was just a fraction of the size at 3,876.
A women’s club game can attract over 6,000 fans in France, but Hermet knows these supporters may not make the trip to South Yorkshire.
“When we play in France, the crowd pushes us and helps us,” she said. “We know it’s different when we play away. We need to develop when we’re abroad to make people want to come and fill stadiums there.
“I think the crowds are due to the results we’ve had but also because of the game we play. People really enjoy watching us play.”
The sevens effect
England are prioritising the 15-a-side game with the likes of Natasha Hunt and Emily Scarratt switching from Sevens in December.
“Having the Sevens players back has given us a boost because they’re world-class players,” said Cleall. “Natasha Hunt has gone into a position where we’ve already got an international scrum-half – Leanne Riley – and they’re really pushing each other.”
But several of France’s XVs regulars are still absent after representing their country at Sevens in Sydney last weekend.
The visitors are also without World Rugby player of the year Jessy Tremouliere, who is still out with an injury sustained at the end of 2018.
With four of the five nominees coming from France, that award could be proof that Les Bleues have the edge when it comes to individual talent.
The battle up front
Just as in the men’s game, the French pack is something to be feared.
This is bad news for England, whose only weakness against Ireland in round one was the scrum.
Marlie Packer’s injury has forced head coach Simon Middleton to bring in the less experienced Poppy Leitch, with Cleall moving from lock to the back row.
“France are really powerful up front,” added Cleall, who has played as prop, lock and flanker for England.
“We’ve looked at that but we’ve also looked at ourselves to see what we can do.
“I’m used to moving to wherever the coach needs me. I’m excited to play back row because that’s my preferred position.”
That extra je ne sais quoi
France Women’s motto is perfect for a side hoping that love of the game can help them overcome financial restraints.
Hermet says the phrase ‘humbles et affamees’ – which translates as ‘humble and hungry’ – is her team’s “identity”.
With so little to separate the two sides, perhaps victory – and this year’s Women’s Six Nations title – will simply be decided by who wants it most.