"It's going to be tough from the start," anticipates Carla Neisen, France's outside centre, when asked about taking on England in the Women's Six Nations final this Saturday at Twickenham Stoop. The final comes at the tail end of a busy few weeks for Neisen, who returned from two tournaments in Dubai with the France women's sevens squad to take part in France's victory over Ireland earlier on in the Championship.
It was a meeting that had started in a somewhat laborious fashion for the French by their standards, leading 3-0 after 13 minutes due to many small errors. "If you do the same against the English, it is not three points that must be gained, but seven and you will always have to chase the score. The slightest mistake can pay off in cash; it will be necessary to be irreproachable,” warns player and pundit Laura Di Muzio.
A recent history belonging to England
With 70 per cent of 47 Le Crunch encounters going the way of the Red Roses, France coach Samuel Cherouk doesn't believe the side's record adds extra pressure going into the clash: "They are a team that beats us very often," he admits. "But does that add pressure to us? No. It is a different competition, it is a different model. We should not put pressure on ourselves, even if the past suggests that this team has always been better than us. We have to prepare to play a very solid and very committed game."
The recent past evoked by Cherouk makes for disappointing reading for France. The two most recent Le Crunch fixtures, held in quick succession a week apart in November 2020, saw firstly a 33-10 loss in Grenoble followed by a 25-23 defeat at Twickenham thanks to a last-gasp penalty from Emily Scarratt.
“The loss at Twickenham, although it hurt, it also made us question ourselves. We are in the process of building something with the group. We feel that we are moving forward,” says hooker Agathe Sochat.
"In the match in Grenoble, what we missed were our defensive hunts, which were very average, very poorly connected, and that's what cost us the match," recalls Cherouk. “At Twickenham, I think we did pretty well. The last 10 minutes are often very difficult, we lacked lucidity and control, unlike the English. This is what we missed. We must be much better on the control of the ball and be stronger on our defence.
“There is still a gap between us, but we are gaining ground very slowly. We see it in the matches they have played. This is a team that masters its rugby better than we do."
This is an observation shared by second-row Safi N’Diaye. “The last two games, there wasn’t much between them,” she said. “This is a team that you shouldn't make mistakes against and that you have to be vigilant against until the 80th minute, because in 10 minutes the score of the game can change. We're not far."
The France camp are more than aware that this weekend's final will be tough: "They want the same thing as us and in addition they are at home," states Cherouk.
Play, play, play
However, even if France are not favorites in this meeting, they have plenty to be positive about and England are not, as the Black Ferns once were, an invincible team for the French.
“You have to be clean and aggressive. If we want to play, we have to make them thwart,” says Sochat, who intends to apply the side's three rugby principles this weekend: play, play, play.
“The English have a very strong game in conquest. They score a lot on the carries. They like to reduce the area of play and force us into defence. We mustn’t fall into this style of play; we need to stay focused on our own style, as we have in the previous matches. The best idea is to produce play.”
France's last victory in England dates back to March 2015, a 21-15 victory at Twickenham. Of the seven losses that followed, four resulted in a difference of fewer than six points in the final score. Victory is within reach and both teams will not want to give the other an inch.
"We have a particular rivalry with the English because from the young categories it is the only nation that we meet," adds Sochat. This weekend we will see the current number one ranked team in the world face off against a side aiming to make its return to the top three.