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Two figures from France Rugby's past and present have given us their views on Les Bleues' 2024 campaign.

Stade Toulousain centre Maëlle Filopon remembers the most recent of her 25 caps for France very well. It was in April 2023 for the crunch match against England at Twickenham. “I was on the bench,” she recalls. Despite the Red Roses' impressive record (39 wins in 53 matches), she is confident. “I'm not afraid of them. I'm approaching this match like any other, even though I know it's going to be a big, physical, tough game.” 

A year later, she was at the Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux, watching the most recent edition of Le Crunch with 28,022 other spectators, in what is a record for a women's Test match in France. The Red Roses won 21-42 on Super Saturday to claim a 13th straight victory against France. A loss that cost the hosts the title. 

The comeback that never arrived  

Memories resurfaced in that moment. In 2023, Les Bleues were 33 points down at half-time and managed to come back to finish just one unconverted try behind England (38-33). This time on the Chaban-Delmas pitch, France tried to catch up, having been down 14-35 at the break, without ever managing to turn the match around. 

“In the second half, they scored a lot less, while we scored a lot more. But we just need to be more clinical,” insists Filopon. “It always comes down to the small details that we can't control, and the English seem to be able to make the most of them.” 

Former coach Annick Hayraud (2016-2022) was also in the stands in Bordeaux last Saturday. “Last year, we were 30 points down at half-time, then came back very suddenly and convincingly in the second half, and then you thought, 'Hey, anything is possible'. But in this match [on Saturday], I didn't have that feeling. I felt like we weren't creating any danger against them, and that we weren't giving them any trouble,” she says. 

“This time, we conceded get 40 points at home. There wasn't a moment in that match when you thought we could win. They were very pragmatic. As soon as they get inside our 22, they scored and took the points home with them. You need to put in a lot of effort to score. You’ve got to do everything you can to score.” 

Double-edged French flair 

It's the precision of the English game that sets them apart from France, believes Filopon. “The French team has always had a French flair, and we've always been in this mindset where we play a lot, we run, whereas the English are very well-oiled: there's such and such an action, it's going to happen like this, and everyone knows what to do," says the winger. "There's no room for uncertainty. England always makes the last pass just right, whereas we tend to rely more on instinct. Unfortunately, that can lead to more errors.

“We French have an instinctive talent for playing rugby. We're not machines. We don't spend an hour every day practising skills. That's not how we see rugby. So it's double-edged. Then you’ve got to take responsibility for it on the pitch.” 

Hayraud doesn't think the French women's style of play needs to change that much; rather that the national team needs to find the right balance if it wants to win while keeping its style of play. “People say that the English are good at winning through carrying the ball. But if you're in a final and you win on a carry, nobody will complain. On the other hand, if you want to bring people to the stadium, you can't just play on carries. Yes, that's part of the game, but we have to find the right balance so that the French national team remains attractive.” 

Minor details need correcting ASAP

While Les Bleues' motto for this campaign has been 'Dare', the former France coach reckons that, compared to the matches she's watched from the stands or on TV, France “is not producing enough ball. There are just too many mistakes. There were loads of knock-on in the last match, and there were a few little things that the English don't have at a high level: a small error in positioning, an instruction that wasn't adhered to. These aren't major issues, but when you add them up, they cost a lot against a side like England.” 

The lineout was a big talking point in the week before Le Crunch. It's fair to say that this area of the game had been on a downward spiral throughout the Championship. An 88% success rate against Ireland, 71% against Scotland, and 64% against Italy. After a disappointing 63% against Wales a week earlier, Les Bleues bounced back to 81% against England. So, when it comes to getting things right quickly, the staff and players know what to do. 

“If you win all your ball and get rid of all these little details, it can give you 20% more ball. Over the course of a match, that makes a big difference. It's 20% less for the English and 20% more for you,” sums up Hayraud. 

Nothing is set in stone 

After a perfect run leading up to Super Saturday, does this loss to England - who they haven't beaten since 2018 - diminish France's contender status for next year's Rugby World Cup in England?  

“It's a big step towards the World Cup, but if you win the Six Nations, it makes your preparation easier," says Hayraud. "If it was just two months away, it might be a psychological factor. But right now, it's over a year away. You still have time to get back into the competition and keep working." 

“I recall the Black Ferns in 2021,” offers Maëlle Filoppon, who was a starter in that match, and also has her sights set on England 2025. “We had already beaten them twice on the autumn tour [38-13 and 29-7], but then they won the match they needed to win at the World Cup, the semi-final [25-24]. Anything can happen in a year. All you need to do is be there.

“There's nothing quite like rugby. It's a sport where anything can happen in the blink of an eye. Just because you've lost one match doesn't mean you'll have the same result in the next. The Black Ferns are a great example of this.” 

England unbeatable? 

The bottom line, as Hayraud sees it, is that “we have our issues with the English, and they have theirs with the New Zealanders. These three nations are really doing well in women's rugby. We know how to play the New Zealanders, but we're still figuring out how to play the English”.

So, are the Red Roses really unbeatable? “I don't think they're unbeatable because they play a very predictable game. If you can break the machine, you can beat them,” says Filoppon, who has played them five times and lost five times. 

“I'm pretty sure we can beat them. From a strategic standpoint, they're a team you can beat. We don't yet have the players to match them physically, but they're a team with some weaknesses, so we need to be able to challenge them technically,” stresses Hayraud. 

Will the moment of truth come as soon as next year? “With all the girls coming through, if we give them even more resources, we'll be world champions one day. It's something that's really achievable,” says the former coach.