Back in May Selina of rugbyaufeminin.com put together a fascinating survey of French fortunes since Samuel Cherouk took over as head coach in January 2017, and especially since the last World Cup.
This was the inspiration for a parallel browse through the Red Roses’ stats. It makes for interesting comparisons.
First a few French Figures
72 players have worn the blue shirt of France over the period since January 2017. That’s a huge number, partly explained by constant switching between 7s and 15s. As that start date preceded the World Cup, it’s not surprising that some players have since retired, including major figures like Caroline Ladagnous, Elodie Poublain and Julie Duval. Others still play but not at international level, most notably Gaëlle Mignot.
France have played 23 times, with 15 wins and 8 losses – 5 against their bogey team, England. Their proudest moments were beating the Black Ferns for the first and second time and fending off England to take the Grand Slam in 2018.
Only three players have appeared in all those games. A moment’s pause while we try to think who they could be…
the young skipper Gaëlle Hermet, Pauline Bourdon and Céline Ferer.
That is some achievement, indicating not least a remarkable avoidance of injury.
Selina constructs a XV from the players who have made the most appearances since the WRWC 2017:
1 Lise Arricastre 20
2 Caroline Thomas 17
3 Clara Joyeux 16
4 Audrey Forlani 21
5 Safi N’Diaye 18
6 Céline Ferer 23
7 Gaëlle Hermet 23
8 Romane Ménager 17
9 Yanna Rivoalen 12
10 Pauline Bourdon 23
11 Caroline Boujard 21
12 Gabrielle Vernier 15
13 Marine Ménager 19
14 Cyrielle Banet 15
15 Jessy Trémoulière 16
It shows only four differences from the side that played England this year.
Of course she has had to tinker with the team to fit them all in. Rivoalen slips in because the ever-present Bourdon is placed at No 10.
Just like the Red Roses, the French have suffered their fair share of injuries, otherwise a player like Maëlle Filopon might well have figured in the centre. She scored a magical try against the Ferns to help gain the win in Grenoble.
Now a Comparison from England
They played 27 matches over the same period. Of those 25 were victories, 2 were losses (once to France, once to NZ). They too have suffered retirements, including famous names like Rocky Clark and Nolli Waterman.
Only one player has managed to reach 25 appearances. Another moment’s pause while we try to think who she could be…
yes, the skipper!
An England XV constructed the same way as les Bleues (most appearances) would look like this:
15 McKenna 19
14 Dow 12
13 Scarratt 15
12 Harrison 24
11 Breach 13
10 Daley-Mclean 22
9 Riley 24
1 Cornborough 22
2 Davies 21
3 Bern 20
4 Scott A 19
5 O’Donnell 16
6 Cleall P 22
7 Packer 20
8 Hunter 25
It shows seven differences from the side that started against France this year.
Several players have suffered long-term injuries; some returned (unexpectedly?) from Sevens. A few had prior commitments that kept them from the playing field.
It’s usual for players to retire after a World Cup; that helps to explain France’s large total of capped players. England by contrast lost only four, Clark, Waterman, Kay Wilson and Izzy Noel-Smith, though only Wilson retired directly after the final.
Even so, I’ve come up with a total of ‘only’ 50 Red Roses who have appeared since then. So there may be a grain of truth in the rumour that the French management spread their net very wide at selection time.
Selectors always have a double objective in mind: short term, the next big tournament; and long-term, the build-up to the next World Cup.
Simon Middleton went so far as to say he wanted three or four ‘world-class’ players in each position. There’s nothing like wishing for the moon. Then we could discuss what ‘world-class’ really means. It’s an over-used term these days; few players granted the title are truly worthy of it.
A Comparison of Anglo-French Playing Strength
There are great similarities between the two squads across the various positions.
France have three main options at hooker, Thomas, Soloch and Touyé; England Cokayne, Davies and Kerr. The last-named in each group can double up as a prop. England have a marginal advantage there, not least in the accuracy of the throw-in.
With the retirement of Julie Duval France were left with four main contributors to the prop position: Lise Arricastre, Clara Joyeux, Mailys Traore and Annaëlle Deshayes. England are similarly catered for with Cornborough, Bern, Botterman and Brown. Only the first named in each case has huge experience. The French pack had much the better of the argument at Pau, but England have the two paciest props in Bern and Botterman.
In the second row France have the long serving Safi N’Diaye, Audrey Forlani and Lénaïg Corson, while Madoussou Fall brings new impetus to the position. England have an equally talented but less experienced trio in Scott, Aldcroft and O’Donnell, but are still waiting for specialist back-up, which may come in time from Morwenna Talling, the teenager. Poppy Cleall performs well there, but the staff would probably prefer to have her operating in the back row.
One reason why the great N’Diaye moved forward to the second row was the presence of so much talent in the back row: Hermet, Ferer, Annery, the elder Ménager and the returning Mayans. England likewise have more talent there than can be accommodated on one team-sheet. And once the captain and Cleall have claimed their place, it’s hard for the management to ensure that other deserving players get their chance. A reminder of the choices available: Packer, Fleetwood, Millar-Mills, Beckett and Amelia Harper, not forgetting two outside bets, Jo Brown and Poppy Leitch.
England have the advantage at half-back, if only in numbers and stability. This has been a problem for France for quite a while. It’s several years since the outstanding Sandrine Agricole retired. The greatest current exponent they have at No 10 is Bourdon; but if she plays there, she can’t play No 9. It’s open to question whether it’s fair to ask her to occupy both positions in one game, but she did so at Doncaster last year and dazzled in the process.
Laure Sansus is another reason why Bourdon plays outside-half so often. Her presence beside the scrum has proved a major asset for the team over the last year. Yanna Rivoalen is the experienced third option at No 9; Morgane Peyronnet, Emma Coudert and Camille Imart have all been tried at outside-half, but none has yet made an unanswerable case for retention.
England have more predictable options in these key positions: two scrum-halves (Hunt and Riley) who would decorate any team, plus the talented Macdonald as back-up. Daley-Mclean makes the No 10 slot appear easy, while Harrison looks totally assured when taking her place. Supporting them are Reed and Emily Scott who have often appeared there with credit in test matches.
Both nations have found filling the centre positions tricky in recent years. The French have suffered debilitating injuries; in particular missing Filopon who has already been mentioned. Vernier too has had to miss important matches. The question is whether she (fully fit) and Camille Boudaud, her regular partner, can hope to match a pairing of Scarratt plus one. It’s an unfair contest; even the Ferns have found Scarratt a formidable foe. Of other centres tried recently – Carla Neisen, Jade Ulutule, Nassira Konde, Yolaine Yengo and Coralie Bertrand – only Neisen has a strong track record and she’s been playing Sevens.
England are still hunting for a permanent link in midfield since the discarding of Rachael Burford. Who partners Scarratt? If Daley-Mclean goes on at least to the RWC, then Harrison and Reid are the two obvious answers. It’s a pity that the alternatives, Tuima, Heard and Wood have had so few chances to display their wares.
Wingers are the show horses of the pageant, not least in this past year or so, where names like Joyce (Wales), Lloyd (Scotland), Parsons (Ireland), Banet, Boujard, the younger Ménager – she played especially well in California – Thompson, Smith, Dow and Breach have often captured the headlines. They add the glamour that the game needs to attract the widest audience. England have a slight advantage in the sheer numbers of talented wingers they possess, but all of them are capable of lifting spectators off their seats with dazzling runs.
The picture is completed with two fine full-backs, Trémoulière and McKenna. Perhaps England have a more secure back-up in Emily Scott, but Boujard has the all-round skill to fill in there for France.
What might have been
If the summer of 2020 had followed its normal course, we could have enjoyed two contrasting sets of internationals: England to play Spain and Ireland; France to make a first-ever trip to New Zealand for two test matches. Now that would have meant high excitement!