Source: Mike Lee - KLC fotos for World Rugby

The Rugby Trinity – New Zealand, England and France

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How do they match up?

New Zealand, England and France – it’s stretching the point a bit far to refer to them as a trinity.

After all, Canada’s Maple Leafs now stand 1.5 points ahead of les Bleues in world rankings, but they finished two points behind them in the Super Series and have yet to beat the Black Ferns. The closest they have got was a 16-8 loss.

France have now beaten the Ferns twice on the trot, to become only the second nation after England to beat them more than once. England’s record is 6 wins, 7 losses, 1 draw. In the early days New Zealand were not the all-conquering machine they later became. Memo: in 2012 England beat the Black Ferns 3-0 in a home series, the combined margin: 65-44.

These days the Ferns are the side to beat, and with the World Cup at last due to take place on home soil, they are even more likely to retain their crown for another four years. Yet that machine has had mechanical trouble a few times recently.

Three Defeats

As the visiting nations fly down hoping to overthrow the reigning champions, they could do worse than inspect the ways the Black Ferns have been beaten three times in the last three years. Those were:

  1.  Against England at Rotorua in June 2017 21-29
  2.  Against France at Grenoble November 2018 27-30
  3.  Against France at Chula Vista August 2019 16-25

Each game had its own flavour, its own importance for the winning side.

Defeat No. 1

The Red Roses took part in a 4-way tournament with Australia, Canada and the hosts New Zealand as part of a valuable training-ground for the coming World Cup in Ireland. They saw off the Wallaroos with ease 53-10, then had the devil of a fight to overcome the Maple Leafs 27-21.

The final contest brought together the two top-ranked sides in the world. It formed the first part of a double-header with the British and Irish Lions taking on the All Black Maoris later in the evening.

Emily Scarratt scored inside two minutes to set the alarm-bells ringing in the home camp. The Ferns came back to lead 14-7 at half-time, but from there the Roses took centre stage. The pack mastered the opposition; Lydia Thompson mastered Portia Woodman. They established a 15-point lead before the Ferns came back right at the end with a consolation try. This was a rare away win for the Red Roses against the side they most enjoy beating. Great was the rejoicing. Briefly they sat on top of world rankings.

Home commentators made sure they reminded their audience that the visitors were full-time professionals.

All too soon New Zealand put matters right where it really mattered, in the final of that World Cup in Belfast. Some pundits have claimed this match as the greatest ever staged by women. In the second half the Black Ferns achieved a magnificent comeback to win 41-32.

Defeat No. 2

France had never beaten New Zealand when they welcomed them for a first visit involving two tests in 2018. At Toulon the guests came away with a narrow but clear victory 14-0. The French accepted that they had been too nervous to give a proper account of their abilities. At Grenoble, in front of a crowd as big as the New Zealanders had experienced in Belfast, les Bleues gave a marvellous display of their skills and determination. Their attacking bravura was matched by their defensive ardour in the closing stages as the winning margin narrowed.

The French policy was to attack. For long periods of the second half they swarmed over enemy territory, but the last few minutes saw the game reduced to a battle of penalty kicks. Caroline Drouin won that duel with Kendra Cocksedge 2-1. The tension was palpable.

It was a coming of age for French rugby. The final margin: 3 points.

Defeat No. 3

The third win, as part of the Super Series in California, may have made fewer headlines, but could be called the most remarkable of all three. For a start, the French had lost convincingly to Canada 19-36 in the previous round; their tails were down. Second, they took the field minus some of their most influential forwards: Lénaïg Corson, Romane Ménager and Safi N’Diaye, all three towers of strength in recent tournaments.

No matter; the French pack proceeded to give the Black Ferns what-for, driving them back repeatedly at the scrum and winning and stealing line-outs. The backs finished the job by scoring three tries. And the Ferns XV was full of redoubtable names like Natua, Blackwell, McMenamin, Cocksedge, Brazier, Hohepa, Wickliffe and Winiata.

The French will admit that the ball ran their way throughout the game, but courageous sides deserve any luck they get.

Both those wins did world rugby a lot of good, showing that even the best team could be overcome.

It’s hard to grade these three results, but perhaps the last one was the most significant. This was one occasion when the famed skill of Kiwis to learn rapidly from a rare defeat and win the next game didn’t occur. They would have been only too aware of the significance of that contest in Chula Vista for getting their tanker pointing the right way again. Against a side deprived of several stars they failed.

But the pattern of swings and roundabouts reasserted itself: France then fell to the Red Roses in the next round, by two points in the tightest of games. And since then they haven’t managed to down English colours. To complete the circle, England lost convincingly to New Zealand in the final round of the tournament.

Forecasting is a fool’s job

The arrival of a new opposition, Covid-19, presents a new challenge for all three contestants at the next World Cup. It has disrupted the rugby calendar to an extent that we still can’t measure. We know the Tokyo Olympics are delayed by a year, but let’s assume the RWC will take place as planned.

The pandemic will affect the player-choices available to the selectors. Which of their Sevens stars will be options, if any?

New Zealand will start as favourites at home. If all they can include any/all of their 7s squad, then that must raise their chances of victory even further.

Here’s a reminder of leading players in the three nations’ Sevens squads who would be welcomed with open arms in their national 15s squad: (Just four each!)

England: Alex Matthews, Ellie Kildunne, Holly Aitchison and Meg Jones

France: Carla Neisen, Caroline Drouin, Marjorie Mayans and Shannon Izar

NZ: Kelly Brazier, Michaela Blyde, Sarah Hirini and Tyla Nathan-Wong

Current World Rankings

  1. New Zealand         93.88
  2. England                 93.65
  3. Canada                   87.49
  4. France                    85.97