The final of the Women’s Six Nations between England and France should come down to who can finish the stronger according to England legend Maggie Alphonsi.
The teams will face off at the Twickenham Stoop on Saturday after dominant campaigns, with both sides impressing on the way to topping their pools.
England have had the better of recent meetings between the sides, winning the last seven encounters.
However, many of those have gone down to the wire, including in the most recent meeting when Emily Scarratt’s last-gasp penalty earned England victory at Twickenham.
So while the home side will take a great deal of confidence from their recent record, six-time Grand Slam winner Alphonsi is expecting another thriller, with the replacements being crucial.
And that is an area where England are well set-up, with the experience of Sarah Hunter and the power of Bryony Cleall to call upon from the bench.
Alphonsi, who is a Women’s Six Nations ambassador, said: “I’m excited by England-France. You have to look at the past scores, the past seven Tests, England have won all of them. But the last one, when they played two Tests against France in the autumn, the last Test was a close one and some would say that France probably should have won that, and I’d say the same thing, they should have won that.
“There was a potential penalty decision that could have gone either way (that decided it). You know when you’ve been sitting on a loss so many times and you get to the point where you say ‘You know what, we’re going to win this’, and I feel like the French are almost starting to figure out what they need to do.
“They have also got almost all their key players there so (Caroline) Boujard, (Emilie) Boulard, who is a new one, they have a very strong side from the team that played England in the last fixture at Twickenham. So I think this will be a really good game.
“I’m not going to say who I think will win it, but I think it will be a close one. We’ve seen in the last lot of French games (against England) that the final score is decided in the last ten minutes, sometimes five, so whoever has a strong bench will make a big difference. England had a strong bench last time and they pulled Emily Scarratt off the bench who won the game for them, and their finishers could make a big difference.”
France have brought back a number of key players from their Sevens set-up, with Romane Ménager coming off the bench in last week’s win over Ireland, while Caroline Drouin lined up at fly-half in that encounter.
The likes of Jade Ulutule and Carla Neisen have also returned from the Sevens format, and that added depth has helped Les Bleues.
And for Alphonsi, being able to slot players back in from Sevens has really helped build the visitors’ depth.
She added: “In the women’s game it’s quite normal to see Sevens players come in and out of the 15s set-up. France have been doing it quite a lot.
“If anything, the movement of the Women’s World Cup to the following year (2022) has definitely allowed teams to bring some of the Sevens players in. The Olympics is still a bit of time away so they can definitely utilise them during the Six Nations.
“What’s been great about having them in is that they have brought a different dynamic to it. France, for example, have Drouin at ten, she’s an incredibly exciting player and she’s been able to play with the 15s when she would be off with the Sevens.
“So for me it’s a positive, the only challenge is does that impact the cohesion of the side. For the French it hasn’t. In the second Test they made eight changes, some would say that’s quite ludicrous but for them it made them better. So I don’t think it really impacts the French.”
England have not brought as many players across from their Sevens set-up, but Helena Rowland is one who has come into the side.
And the young fly-half, one of the players charged with filling the boots of retired World Cup-winning skipper Katy Daley-Mclean, has impressed Alphonsi.
She added: “The English don’t tend to do it, they try to keep them very separate but they have brought players in to commit to themselves to the squad.
“Helena Rowland is a good example, she usually plays Sevens but Katy Daley-Mclean has retired and Rowland will likely be the permanent ten.
“They don’t tend to move them across but having the likes of (full-back) Ellie Kildunne has helped the England side and given them greater depth. So I like seeing Sevens players come over, it’s just about making sure it doesn’t impact their cohesion and quality, but I don’t think it has. If anything, it has strengthened both sides.”