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France steeled for epic Six Nations decider against dominant England
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France steeled for epic Six Nations decider against dominant England

The last time England lost in the women’s Six Nations Theresa May was prime minister, Chelsea were defending Premier League champions and The Shape of Water had just won best picture at the Oscars. Since that defeat the Red Roses have won 28 consecutive games in the competition, scoring 1,440 points and conceding 185, and claimed five Women’s Six Nations titles in a row. And the winners that fateful day in 2018? France.

On Saturday in Bordeaux France will have their latest chance to end England’s reign in a winner-takes-all grand slam decider. But the French will have to overcome a dominant beast in John Mitchell’s team who are targeting not only a sixth straight title but a third straight slam.

France will be aiming to put on a cinematic performance but they have not defeated England in any competition for six years. The Red Roses have also arguably been more impressive in this tournament, particularly last time out against Ireland. A 14-try rout at Twickenham opened the door for yet another title.

The hosts are bidding for their first Six Nations title and grand slam since 2018. Aside from their losses to old enemy England, France have a good record in the competition. The last time they failed to beat a team that was not England was their 13-13 draw against Scotland in 2020. The pressure is on French shoulders to exorcise their run of losses to England but the team are relatively calm, according to the fly-half Lina Queyroi.

“We feel our own internal stress, but we are good at dealing with nerves and we rarely get nervous,” the 22-year-old says. “We will work on it in the buildup to the match, so we can manage the high-pressure moments and stay calm.

“We have to be competitive in this match if we want to win the grand slam. The collisions are going to be huge. We know they are strong in the middle of the pitch, but we also have our strengths.”

The Red Roses celebrate after winning the Women’s Six Nations at Twickenham in 2023.View image in fullscreen

One such strength is the centre Gabrielle Vernier who is known for her crunching tackles. She will be charged – alongside her centre partner Nassira Konde, Queyroi and the rest of the defensive line – with stopping the link from the England half-back partnership of Holly Aitchison and Natasha Hunt to the back three. Breaking the chain of attack will be key to overcoming the Red Roses, especially as the backline have good connections woven into their game after Mitchell named unchanged backs in his starting XV for the fourth game in a row.

Another France strength is the home crowd but the England captain, Marlie Packer, is unfazed by what awaits them at Stade Chaban-Delmas. “I think keep the excitement going,” Packer says, reflecting on playing at Twickenham last weekend. “We know what the French crowd are going to bring and [we need to] actually rise to the occasion again.

“Let’s make it our fortress over there. Twickenham was an amazing day for us but at the end of the day that is in the past and we need to stay in the present. If we put the brand of rugby on like we did last Saturday, I think the French crowd will start cheering our way.”

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The crowd that lies in wait for England will set a record for an international women’s rugby game in France with 27,000 expected, despite little advertisement of the game in the city. However, the Red Roses have their own fans travelling over to the south-west of France. On a flight from Bristol several were spotted wearing the rose, one large group from a local club, with nods exchanged when they realised they were travelling for the same game.
When they landed in Bordeaux they were greeted by showers, with heavy rain forecast for game day. Both teams will look to weather the storm and Mitchell insists he does not want it to be smooth sailing, adding the battle is exactly what his side have been seeking.

“We have been expecting an arm wrestle for some time,” says the New Zealander, who is chasing his first trophy in his first tournament with England.

“Obviously we have been wanting it, we’ve been asking for it. We are certainly going to get it on the weekend. It will give us really good feedback, it is really important to experience that. It will hold us in good stead because we can learn from it.”

Source: theguardian.com