Gabrielle Vernier made her name as one of the most relentless defenders in rugby but the France centre has relished the chance to show her skills on the other side of the ball.
Still only 25, Vernier is now established as one of Les Bleues’ most important players and the inside centre excelled in the 2023 TikTok Women’s Six Nations.
Vernier was at the heart of everything good for France, notching five tries and two assists as they finished second behind Grand Slam champions England.
Those performances have been recognised by the fans, who voted Vernier the TikTok Player of the Championship, following in the footsteps of teammate Laure Sansus, who scooped the prize last year before retiring at the end of 2022.
And while Vernier’s strength has always been on the defensive side, she has excelled with ball in hand this year as France kicked off a new regime under head coaches Gaëlle Mignot and David Ortiz with a revamped attacking mindset.
She explained: “It had been a long time since I’d felt as connected with as much good feeling on the pitch with the other girls. I think it’s really encouraging for the future. We really managed to enjoy ourselves out there, to step it up a gear and play with a really attacking mindset on the pitch.
“Our new backs coach, Sylvain Mirande, has been able to put in place a real appetite for playing. He suggested some new things and I think that did us good and that we enjoyed playing and taking the initiative.
“I was pleased to play with freedom at last. Those are things that I did a lot at club level and it’s true that with France, until now, I felt less comfortable in attack. I think the more games you play, the more experience you gain, and you feel more legitimate out there and more comfortable.”
The challenge for Vernier and her France team now is to close the gap on England. For the second year running, the teams met on Super Saturday in a Grand Slam decider, this time in front of a world record crowd at Twickenham.
After a good opening quarter of an hour, France’s defensive solidity deserted them for 25 minutes before half-time as they slumped to a 33-0 deficit.
While they scored five tries after the break, they had left themselves too much to do in a 38-33 loss, and Vernier admits that it took a while to appreciate the enormity of both the occasion and the match.
She said: “It felt like a dream and the return to real life was brutal. Going back to your daily routine, on your own, after experiencing emotions like that, going into a stadium with 58,000 (58,498) people, the fireworks when you go onto the pitch, the lap of honour where the English were amazing, the atmosphere was incredible. It was an incredible moment and I can’t wait to see that stadium full, I’m sure it will be at the World Cup.
“For us, we have to keep playing like we did in the Six Nations, with freedom, trying things. I think we lost our trademark during that game, we are built on our defence and that let us down for 20 minutes in the first half. I think we have the weapons but we have to apply them at the right moment. We showed that we can defend, we showed that we can attack, now we have to put it together in the same match. I think we can do it.”
England’s winning run in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations now stretches back five years to France’s last title when they won the 2018 Grand Slam.
But with Vernier leading the charge and France going back to their attacking roots, the time is ripe for Les Bleues to challenge for silverware again.