Annick Heyraud, France’s experienced manager, had mixed feelings about the 41-26 defeat to England at Doncaster. ‘In the first half we were non-existent’ was her damning judgement. The second half told a different story but it was too steep a hill to climb.
The great French sports newspaper L’Équipe was in no doubt: ‘The French team was unrecognisable against England’. Of course it was referring to the standard of play on show, but the new-look team forced on the management by the separation of the 7s and 15s squads added a literal sense to its comment. And the FFR has recently given its women’s team a subtly different title: ‘Le XV de France féminin’ – to bring it into line with the men’s team.
The starting XV at Doncaster was unchanged from the victory over Wales the previous week. It was a curious blend of a mostly tried-and-tested pack containing daunting names, and a set of backs deprived of most of its Grand Slam stars.
Let’s look for a few reasons for France’s demise
The Red Roses were very good, well prepared and well selected.
Their display came down to a combination of a high level of all-round ability and game awareness. They were boosted too by the return of three star players to the colours. But they weren’t consistent enough to prevent France from scoring 26 points – a total that would win most matches for them.
The French had had much less time to adjust to the loss of their 7s players. The two sides that performed so magnificently against New Zealand in November still contained vital players who then switched across. England had the three Quilter tests to try out new options.
In France the Elite 8 clubs became 16 in September. The decision-makers in this new policy probably accepted that it would take time for all the benefits to accrue. Half the games thus far have set the players selected for this year’s internationals against clubs who were in the second rank (the ‘Armelle Auclair’) last year. It is as if Lightning, Quins and Sarries had been playing clubs in the Championship (South) as often as their Tyrrells rivals. In a few years’ time we may see the wisdom of the French approach. But in the here and now the newer French faces found the Doncaster match a daunting challenge
Their pack was unable to establish any consistent mastery over the the opposition. Neither Deshayes nor Duval appeared in the French front row. Deshayes may not have been the first choice No 1, but Duval’s absence removed a heap of know-how where it’s always valued.
Credit is due to all the English forwards, especially the younger element. On the flank the one non-contracted player, Poppy Leitch, was very much a left-field option, brought into the side in the absence of both Packer and Fleetwood. Her performance will encourage selectors to use her again without fear; she played the full 80 minutes and was prominent right to the end.
The English pack put in its most consistent effort at the set-scrum for quite a while, winning a crucial put-in against the head on their own 5-metre line. Even after Vickii Cornborough’s yellow, they held a driving maul to win the referee’s verdict.
The French selectors are still unsure where to play Bourdon. She’s a match-winner anywhere, but some critics felt she didn’t shine in the first half at No 9. Rather harsh.
The players called in to replace Drouin (Imart), Izar (Murie), Neisen (Marine Ménager) and Le Pesq (Vernier) are very promising, but not a patch on their predecessors. Handling let them down at vital moments when attacks held promise, and their defensive alignments were too easily breached.
This French backline was repeatedly outplayed, not to say outpaced. Their back three were shown up by McKenna, Smith and Breach; all three quite outstanding on the day. Jason and Murie were scorched more than once. And when two other English wingers, Lydia Thompson and Abby Dow, were mere onlookers, we should count our blessings to have such riches available when injury intervenes.
French fragility could be a matter of fine detail; for example, how they lined their opponent up in defence. In the first 40 minutes England had too much room to play with. Aided by the astute tactical kicking of Daley-Mclean, McKenna and Scarratt, they found space out wide and in the backfield that really should have been covered.
Who could have imagined England losing two dramatically good full-backs – Nolli Waterman to retirement, Ellie Kildunne to the 7s programme – only to find Sarah McKenna playing out of her skin in every aspect of her game?
For the French the four second-half tries were scored by N’Diaye (No 5/8), Romane Ménager (No 8/7) and two for Bourdon (No 9/10). It’s hard to recall more than one dangerous break from players outside Bourdon – the younger Ménager did manage that one – and Caroline Boujard’s counters started mainly deep in her own half. Few players would choose to play directly opposite Emily Scarratt without a wealth of experience behind them. If her three punts deep into left field were the outstanding feature of her display, her opponents won’t forget her tackling and passing in a hurry.
The gap in playing strength was shown on the bench too. Of France’s eight (Traoré, Argagnon, Forlani, Diallo, Rivoalen, Lissar, Constanty) only Audrey Forlani and Yanna Rivoalen have a distinguished history of top competition. Doriane Constanty was one newer face to make a telling contribution in the latter stages.
Compare them with England’s eight (Botterman, Cokayne, Shaunagh Brown, Burnfield, Beckett, Hunt, Harrison and Emily Scott) They included three selected for the last WRWC (two starting in the final) and two whose experience goes back a decade.
For the second time running against England, les Bleues delivered their most telling performance in the second half (17-26). The difference in Yorkshire was the massive lead the hosts had already established.
It will be fascinating to see how France’s new programme works out over the coming years.