How lucky Europe is to have a tournament the size and scope of the 6 Nations!
Only England and France?
When we read of the two great rugby-playing nations down under hoping desperately to establish a wider international playing field, we should be grateful for the 6 Nations Championship, the feast that is served up to us in Europe every year. In the longer term it is vital for the overall standard to be raised, for the top-ranking nations to be challenged to their supremacy.
In March 2018 England failed by a late try in Grenoble to retain the title they’d won the previous season. Overall they were sharper in attack than the French (187 points to 163) but more porous in defence (5 tries conceded to just 2 by France – both at the hands of the Red Roses).
Put another way:
England scored 24 points more than France
France conceded 21 points fewer than England.
It’s difficult to see beyond these two nations providing the next 6N winners. That’s a great shame, but their player pool and support services make it appear inevitable. So we need to compare and contrast the two Unions’ policies to detect the likely outcome. Sevens is a crucial factor: the English have denied themselves the use of the seventeen players contracted to play the abbreviated game. Last season France didn’t: leading players in the dramatic game in Grenoble were also involved in their 7s programme. For example names like Marjorie Mayans, Jessy Trémoulière and Caroline Drouin appeared on both lists during the year.
Now times have changed. The new French contracts show none of those names available to the 15s squad. Léna Corson is the one exception – you can quite understand why.
Three factors tilt the pendulum towards England:
- They meet les Bleues at home next time, as games have gone with territory recently – the last two occasions 26-13, 18-17. France were the last team to win the contest away, in 2013. In a strange coincidence, England ran away from France in the second half in two consecutive matches in 2017: the 6N at Twickenham, then the WRWC semi at Belfast – two very different occasions, two parallel outcomes. France’s advance since then is shown by their dramatic wins against the Red Roses then the Black Ferns.
- The introduction of full-time professional contracts.
A first word of caution: they weren’t enough to ensure England’s victory at the last World Cup, but they’d been in operation for only a handful of months and were time-limited. Then recently we had the surprising but heartening news of three additions to the Red Roses squad: Jess Breach, Mo Hunt and Emily Scarratt. All three were central to England’s 7s programme; all decided to switch back to 15s. Of the three, Breach’s decision is the most significant, because she is so young. She is just the sort of player every 7s squad desires – blessed with outstanding pace, she could simplify their strategies: ‘Give it to Jess!’ and she’s away. Her decision is a great boost for 15s rugby, helping to prove that young players are willing to forsake the dream of an Olympic medal for a chance to play regularly and challenge for a World Cup medal.
- With the announcement of the full list of contracted professionals on 3 January, we might be tempted to think that England are the only winners in town. That may prove to be the case, but:
- The new system has been in place for just one month before the 6 Nations kicks off on 1 February.
- The scale of the payments is such that many players may find it advisable to seek some other employ to support themselves. A few may be offered sponsorship deals, but Ronaldo-scales of reward are unlikely.
- Somebody once said ‘It’s only a game.’
- The French are coming…
- But they too have now split their two squads apart – no doubling up. However promising the newcomers are, they can barely hope to match the range of skills lost by France to the 7s game.
France present a challenge to England’s ambitions as strong as it has ever been. They are the current holders of the 6 Nations Championship and Grand Slam winners. Add to that their triumph in the World Series 7s, where they won silver medals, losing only to the Black Ferns at the last gasp. The wind is in their sails.
At club level they have reversed their 2014 policy which reduced the Top 10 to Top 8. That controversial move brought enviable results, including the 2014 and 2018 Grand Slams.
Now the Top 8 have become the Top 16. The old Second Division, known as the Armelle Auclair, have joined their senior sisters in two evenly split pools: four from each division combining to play each other. The winners play off at the end of the season for the Big Prize. This equally contentious move has its strengths and drawbacks: it allows international stars like Julie Duval of Caen to compete at the top level again; but it reintroduces one-sided contests. Montpellier, traditional leaders of the pack, beat Stade Olympique Villelonguet 91-10 to show the dangers of the current policy. Indeed, all last year’s Top 8 clubs beat their lower-tier counterparts easily in the opening round; and mouth-watering clashes between the leading sides are impossible where they land up in different pools.
The official hope is obviously that the general standard will rise; the fear is that the opposite will happen. The creaming-off of the Top 8 four years ago certainly raised French standards to their highest pitch. It took an agonisingly close loss to England in that World Cup semi in Belfast to deny them their debut in a final.
Much depends on the ability of the second-tier clubs to raise their game. This is a process familiar in the British Isles, where the gap between each level of competition is too wide for comfort. The best players from the minor clubs will inevitably be sought out by the top clubs before the minnows can reap the benefits of their input. One of the richest French clubs, Stade Français, whose home is the Jean-Bouin Stadium in Paris, b(r)ought in a host of leading players like Camille Grassineau and Lénaïg Corson from elsewhere to bolster their chances. But they still lost their debut match in the Top 16 to Montpellier 41-7.
Italy’s position is much less balanced. The two leading clubs in the elite division, Villorba Rugby and Rugby Colorno, stand head-and-shoulders above their competitors. If ever a levelling-up is needed, it is here. Consider: a combined total of 986 points for and 18 points against as 2018 approached its end! But the Azzurre had the boost of beating Scotland and South Africa in their Autumn tests – in themselves a welcome addition to their programme.
It’s taking a long time for the Azzurre to make the decisive breakthrough into the ranks of the elite, but their menfolk have been taking even longer. They have outstanding individuals in their midst: Andrea Di Giandomenico, their long-term head coach, is slowly developing the depth of quality they need to compete on level terms with France and England.
Wales had a thoroughly frustrating time in the 2018 6 Nations, but since then things have looked up. They defeated South Africa (20-11) and Hong Kong (65-0) in their Autumn internationals – another important supplement for them – then lost only 37-21 to the Canadians. Rowland Phillips was pleased with this performance against one of the top nations in the world. His aim is to raise the Welsh team to a point where they can hold their own against the very best. To that end he has instigated a regional drive to attract new young players into the game. The wider the base, the stronger the peak. The immediate reward is the introduction of six uncapped players to the 6N squad.
Ever more ambitious players are moving over to Tyrrells clubs in England. This may well improve the national team’s standards when they return across the Severn, but has the reverse effect on the elite club games in the Principality.
Scotland too are taking major steps towards improving their standing. They have appointed Gemma Fay Head of Women’s rugby, and she has set out her objectives in raising standards. Like Wales, they have a new Youth Development Scheme in operation to build for the future. The best players still find it necessary to move to England or France to play at the highest club standard. Only when they can safely stay at home and enjoy this same level of competition will they really know they have achieved their goals.
Ireland have led the Celtic nations in on-field success, but their performance in their own World Cup was a huge disappointment. Since then they have been re-establishing themselves as a competitive women’s rugby nation. But among the losses they suffered in the Autumn internationals, the defeat to the USA was a set-back. Like Scotland and Wales, they are actively developing a youth programme. The All-Ireland League is their counter to England’s Tyrrells Premier 15s.
So the ultimate question: France or England?
France’s hopes of retaining the 6 Nations crown have been dented by the loss to Sevens of so many leading players, not least the World Player of the Year, Jessy Trëmoulière, and Caroline Drouin, the French Player of the Year at the age of 22. They have been on a high ever since winning the Grand Slam last year, then trumping it with the win over the Black Ferns. Samuel Cherouk has found it necessary to import such unfamiliar names (to us British) as Léa Murie, Morgane Peyronnet and Marie Salluzo. They and others are the pick of the Elite 1 matches played out in parallel to the Tyrrells tournament in England.
Of course they still have outstanding players available, especially in the pack. Names like Corson, Safi N’Diaye, Lise Arricastre, Julie Duval and the Mènager twins mean England will have to fight for every scrap of possession when the two sides meet in Round 2. And France have an inspiring captain in Gaëlle Hermet, who, a year into her responsibilities, is still only 22.
To set against this challenge the Red Roses can once again pit the world’s greatest all-round player, Emily Scarratt. Whether she plays at No 13 or No 15, she can shore up a defence that hasn’t been the tightest in recent contests and threaten the opposition’s line whenever she gets the ball in hand. Her wingers can look forward to seeing gilt-edged passes coming their way. With Rachael Burford alongside her, lovers of the passing game may well be in raptures.
It will be fascinating to see how far Jess Breach’s 7s experiences have broadened her game. Wingers’ defences need to be as precise as their attacking skills. The clashes between the two squads’ fliers should be amongst the most dramatic of all. Boujard, Jason and Banet will provide a stern test.
England chances? The arrival of full-term professionalism may well prove the decisive factor, but it’s still only a bouncing baby, and bouncing babies don’t always win rugby matches.
France’s chances? Their players have long been accused of being poor travellers. But recent stats give the lie to this slur. Of course England have the players to down them, but Castle Park Doncaster on 10 February may not be the safest refuge for Roses’ fans of a nervous disposition. Perhaps the visitors should all be treated to a generous lunch of Yorkshire pudding pre-match.