This year’s women’s Six Nations begins with the fixture most observers believe will be its defining encounter. France take on England in Pau on Sunday, with the hosts standing between the Red Roses and back-to-back grand slams.
England beat France on three occasions in 2019 but the head coach, Simon Middleton, is taking no chances and has named his strongest side for the match at the Stade du Hameau.
“We are all looking forward to another meeting with France”, Middleton said. “As in the autumn and in all of our most recent contests, games between the two sides are always tight, cagey affairs and we don’t expect this one to be any different.
“France were terrific in the autumn, and a 1-1 outcome would have been pretty fair. Although they tended to dominate possession and position we were tactically very good with ball and very clinical in the right areas of field.
“They came back against us at Exeter and had tricks up their sleeve; they played into space behind us with their kicking game, they challenged us in the middle of the ruck, they asked a lot of questions. I can see they’ve mixed their half-backs up again for this match, so Sunday will be incredibly tactical.”
Sarah Hunter will captain the team from No 8, earning her 119th cap. The Loughborough Lightning player will be surrounded by experienced colleagues too, with the England XV averaging 43 caps each. The depth and strength of the squad means Sarah Bern, nominated for last year’s World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year award, is only among the replacements.
Middleton claims the current squad has been selected with the upcoming World Cup in mind. Each player in the 23 has made themselves available for selection first for qualifiers later this year and then, should that go to plan for the former champions, the tournament in New Zealand next year.
“We’re really comfortable that everyone in the programme believes they’ve got another World Cup in them,” Middleton said. “Some of the more senior players – Hunter, Katy Daley McLean – we’re really confident they will go to the World Cup if they are still fit.
“From that point of view we’ve got a squad with a common goal. What we’ve got to do now is get that squad to the World Cup in the best physical shape and well equipped to play our best game. Most critically we’ve got to make sure we’ve got adequate strength in depth, so if we lose players we’re confident that the replacements can play at level we want to, and can lead the team, become influential decision makers.”
To that end Middleton has developed a leadership group within the squad, not always composed of the most experienced players, who are trusted with developing both the messaging within the squad and match tactics. The system chosen against France, for example, will be one refined by the players themselves in the final training session on Saturday.
“Everyone is a doer but some have to make decisions more than others”, Middleton said. “We’ve done a lot of work in developing the leadership group. It’s easy to assume with the experience in the squad that there is a lot of it and, yes, it’s true, in their own way. But the way we want to lead is going to take some development. We want to make sure the breadth is there and then that filters down.
“We want a first in command with generals around. It’s also about ensuring that leaders can share knowledge on the field. Leading through knowledge and leading through inspiration. It’s really interesting to do and something the girls are really keen on.” The next test of this strategy and the Red Roses is on Sunday. In the weekend’s other fixtures, Ireland take on Scotland at Donnybrook while dark horses Italy travel to Cardiff Arms Park to face Wales.