England v France – Le Crunch – Castle Park Doncaster 10 February 2019
Here are the squads for the most eagerly awaited clash of the season:
5 Scott A
6 Cleall P
8 Hunter (C)
18 Brown S
23 Scott E
13 Ménager M.
6 Hermet (C)
8 Ménager R.
Cherouk has stuck to the same starting XV that demolished Wales. It means that Annaëlle Deshayes still isn’t fit to return in the front row – a relief for England. On the bench only Rivoalen and Forlani are well used to this level of competition.
Let’s take a closer look at what was always going to be the keenest contest of the series
Both sides won their opening round matches, the Red Roses 51-7 in Dublin, Les Bleues 52-3 against Wales in Montpellier. No surprises there, though England can take comfort from such a big away win against last year’s third best. We need to look more closely at the background. As is well known now, the French are now having to do without their 7s players. So the crucial issue for them was to bed in their replacements and see how they performed in the test arena.
Their manager, Annick Heyraud, acknowledged there had been question-marks hanging over the new-look team, but their performance reassured her.
Sad to relate, Wales were totally outplayed. Heyraud admitted as much when she said the game in England would be on a totally different level.
The French pack was hardly affected by the change in policy, but Camille Imart would have to prove an adequate substitute for Caroline Drouin, France’s Player of the Year, at outside-half. The cross-kick she offered to Léa Murie was the icing on the cake for her. The links between forwards and backs were smooth and efficient. The quality of their off-loading posted a warning for England.
On the other hand France did miss the place-kicking ability of Trémoulière and Drouin. Imart converted only two of their nine tries. In a much tighter contest those extra points take on huge significance.
Anyone who has not yet seen Pauline Bourdon, the No 9, might be forgiven for thinking that she has just slipped on to the field illegally from her class in the Lower Fourth. It’s a clever mask. She is fleet of hand, foot and brain, and needs watching like a hawk. In typical French style, she is the pivot of the team’s performance, rather than the No 10. Her reverse pass to onrushing forwards is a ploy we don’t often see from her English counterparts and she box-kicks often and well.
Once again, France’s line remained uncrossed against Wales. The only two tries they conceded last year were scored by England, who can claim they too kept their try-line intact. But there was that penalty try Ireland forced which reduced the savour of victory. Their defence will need to be top-notch for all 80 minutes.
And where are England’s other question-marks? The tougher the opposition, the easier they are to discover. France will be relieved to see Rachael Burford and Marlie Packer’s names missing. Heard has shown great promise in the 12 shirt; Leitch will face the biggest test of her career thus far. Two Poppies in the back-row! They will need to keep the Ménager cork in the bottle. Romane has made so many devastating runs in recent campaigns that no defence can feel entirely safe.
An intermittent shortcoming has been the set-scrum. We can look back to the Italy game in the World Cup and all three matches against Canada in the autumn of 2017 to see the Roses’ pack being disrupted. They more than held their own against France in the WRWC semi-final, but now they face a new prop, Clara Joyeux, as young and promising as Bern and Botterman. Will England’s replacement props achieve at least parity in the scrum?
The French pack showed a well-organised driving maul against the Welsh, so England will have to redouble their efforts to find a legal way of stopping it before it can do damage. Equally, the French will know how devastating the English can be with the same weapon.
A quite astonishing stat to start: England can boast no fewer than eight contracted players who were already good enough to wear the rose back in 2010: Katy Daley-Mclean, Sarah Hunter, Rachael Burford, Mo Hunt, Rowena Burnfield, Vicky Fleetwood, Sarah McKenna and Marlie Packer! Five of them will sport the shirt on Sunday.
And nobody can suggest that they are still around owing to a dearth of talent elsewhere. Experience of this order is hard to counter and a huge asset to all their team-mates.
The side selected to oppose Ireland showed great dynamism: the ball was moved at pace through the phases, and breakdowns broke down for the minimal time possible. This helped to produce gaps in the Irish defence and mismatches. But against a side that can regroup faster, ball-retention will be vital.
The two sets of locks have been among the jewels in the crown of both teams in recent years. The tactics at the line-out will be fascinating to observe, especially close to the line. Will every throw be contested? Will France have as many targets to offer their thrower as England?
Even without Burford in midfield the hosts should be able to find enough space to slide two fine wingers through on the odd occasion. And with Sarah McKenna in great form at No 15, they possess a back-three of high potential.
Inevitably there will be contracted players left on the touchline. But after the clash in Yorkshire there are still three matches for them to make their contribution – they number 35, when they are all fit, which sadly isn’t the case at present. But even with four or five out of the reckoning, that still leaves a large number whose only task will be to look on and give spirited support.
Sedative pills at the ready!
Many thanks to Nick Heath for access to the interview/video