More than 15,000 tickets have been sold for one of the most eagerly-awaited women’s internationals outside of a Rugby World Cup year as France and England prepare to put their perfect records on the line.
Saturday's top-of-the-table showdown – a repeat of the Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 semi-final which England won 20-3 last August – at the Stade des Alpes in Grenoble has all the makings of a classic with the victor taking a massive stride towards lifting the trophy.
Defending champions England sit atop the Women’s Six Nations table but only on points difference, as France have matched them every step of the way in recording three bonus-point wins of their own.
Ireland have won both their encounters since an opening day defeat to Les Bleues to occupy third place, on nine points, while Wales are back in fourth with just the one win to their name. Italy and Scotland have yet to register a victory, but the losing bonus point Scotland gained in their 18-17 loss to Wales in round one keeps them off the foot of the table.
We take a brief look at some of the facts and figures surrounding the big game in France, and how it may affect the rankings, as well as Sunday’s fixtures in Dublin and Cardiff.
France (3) v England (2)
Dangerous centre Jade Le Pesq has returned to fitness in time to take her place among Les Bleues' midfield. Le Pesq scored three tries in the first two rounds before injury forced her to miss the Italy match in round three and is partnered in midfield by Carla Neisen. The only other changes come in the pack with Audrey Forlani and Romane Ménager lining up in the second and back row respectively.
England coach Simon Middleton makes seven changes, two of them positional, to the side that defeated Scotland 43-8 at the Scotstoun Stadium in Glasgow a fortnight ago. Captain Sarah Hunter and Rachael Burford return to the starting line up from injury at number eight and outside centre respectively. Amber Reed also comes in at inside centre with Abigail Dow, who has seven tries in four internationals, starting on the wing, with Marlie Packer at openside.
- France and England are the only unbeaten teams left in the Six Nations
- Since Italy joined (in 2007) these sides have won nine of the 11 titles (England seven, France and Ireland two)
- England have won the last four encounters, most recently at WRWC 2017 when they beat Les Bleues 20-3 in the semi-final
- The last fixture in France, however, at the Stade de la Rabine in Vannes, ended in a 17-12 win for Les Bleues
- France have won four of the last five meetings between these sides in the Championship, although England won their most recent encounter in 2017
- England have only conceded 15 points to date – their lowest after the first three rounds since 2012
- France have yet to concede a try in the 2018 Championship. England were the last team to keep their line intact throughout the five rounds in 2012
- Neither side have scored 30 points or more in each of the last eight fixtures between the nations
- France have lost just three times at home in the current format of the Women’s Six Nations (winning 26), with all three defeats coming against England (2008, 2010, 2012)
Victory for the home side could be worth nearly two rating points depending on the margin of victory. That would still not be enough for Les Bleues to catch England in second place, although the gap would narrow to just 1.6 points. England can cut their deficit to world champions and number one ranked New Zealand to just 1.85 points if they win well.
Wales (8) v Italy (9)
Record attendance on the cards @ #WALvITA #WalesWomen @principalitysta Sun, Gates Open 11.30, KO 11.45am— Welsh Rugby Union (@WelshRugbyUnion) March 8, 2018
-World Record: Women's int 20,000 ish
-Record: Wales @ home 4,000 ish
-Ticket holders: 60,000+!
GET IN EARLY = SMASHED RECORD!https://t.co/JctOfHBdAwhttps://t.co/FouXB0CkJK pic.twitter.com/kRAXgUK82f
Scrum-half Keira Bevan and winger Jasmine Joyce are involved for the first time this year. Bevan returns from an ankle injury suffered on international duty last year, while Joyce has been involved in preparations for next month’s Commonwealth Games Sevens in Australia. Elsewhere, Jess Kavanagh-Williams is the only player remaining from the back three which turned out against Ireland in Dublin a fortnight ago, with Hannah Jones starting at full-back and Joyce on the right wing. With an unchanged pack, the only other change in the team sees Robyn Wilkins brought in at inside centre, as Wales seek a second win in this year’s competition.
For the Italians Elisa Giordano returns at number eight with Giada Franco shifting across to blindside flanker as a result and Ilaria Arrighetti dropping to the bench. Two further changes in the pack see second-row Valentina Ruzza and prop Lucia Gai come into the starting line-up with Michela Merlo and Elisa Pillotti taking up places on the bench. The Azzurre backline remains unchanged from their 57-0 loss to France a fortnight ago.
News in brief
- Wales’ last loss at home was a 52-10 defeat to Japan when fielding an experimental team in a WRWC 2017 warm-up. They have beaten Spain and Scotland since then
- Italy have won on their last two visits to Wales, though, with both games being played at the Talbot Athletic Ground
- This fixture has been won seven times by the away side on the day, no other fixture has seen as many away victories since Italy joined the competition in 2007
- The Azzurre are on an eight-game losing run in the Championship
- This match will take place at the Principality Stadium, the last time Wales played there in the Six Nations was in 2012 when they beat Italy 30-13. Number eight Sioned Harries and prop Caryl Thomas are the only survivors from that day in the starting line-up on Sunday
A Wales victory would see them climb above Ireland and into seventh place if the Irish fail to beat Scotland at home. Italy would leapfrog Wales in the rankings in victory and also a beaten Ireland, with a two-place rise to seventh possible. A heavy defeat for the Azzurre would see drop them one place below Spain.
Ireland (7) v Scotland (12)
Ireland coach Adam Griggs has made two changes to the starting XV that overcame Wales a fortnight ago. Hannah Tyrrell is promoted from the bench to the wing, while up front Cliodhna Moloney is named at hooker. Ashleigh Baxter and Louise Galvin have come into the side and are named in the replacements.
Scotland captain Lisa Martin returns after missing the 43-8 loss to England with an eye injury. She slots in at fly-half with Hannah Smith making way and switching the left wing for the trip to Dublin. Coach Shade Munro has elected not to make any further changes, keeping his forward pack together again.
News in brief
- Ireland are on a 12-game winning streak in tests against Scotland dating back to 2006
- Scotland won on their first five visits to Ireland, between 1996 and 2006, but have not achieved a single victory in the six matches since then
- Scotland have scored 27 points across their last two fixtures against Ireland in the Championship, more than they had managed in their previous nine clashes (23)
- Ireland have won 15 of their last 17 home games in the Six Nations with only France (2015) and England (2017) coming away with victory in that run
- Scotland have won two of their last six matches in the Championship, having gone 36 games without victory before that run
- This fixture was decided with the final play of the game in 2017, when Ireland’s Jenny Murphy crashed over the line in the 82nd minute to secure a 22-15 victory at Broadwood Stadium
Ireland can only improve their rating by seven-hundredths of a point which is not enough to lift them any higher than seventh. Scotland have 11th-placed Samoa in their sights as they stand to gain as many as 2.93 points in victory.
The World Rugby Women's Rankings update every Monday at 12:00 GMT.