France 56 Ireland 15
England will face a Six Nations showdown with France next Saturday after Les Bleues completed a resounding victory over Ireland in Dublin to top their pool.
As the two most elite sides in the championship, an England-France showdown never looked in doubt when organisers announced the shortened format for this year’s competition.
The reigning Six Nations champions will face a French side which has shown real firepower of late — best epitomised through their sizzling backline partnership of Caroline Boujard and Emilie Boulard — which was out in force once again in their side’s ruthless dismantling of Ireland.
The result in Dublin will intensify discussions around the need for other nations to up investment in their women’s set-ups. It is also indicative of how, even in this year’s truncated format, the Women’s Six Nations remains a two-horse race.
“I read the other day that England had 46 under-20s players in a camp, with former Irish international Amy Turner coaching them. We [the Ireland Rugby Football Union] don’t even have an under-20’s structure,” observed former Ireland captain Fiona Coghlan during RTE’s commentary as Cyrielle Banet glided over for her second and France’s eighth try of the afternoon.
Semi-professional France gave Ireland a reality check, but will ultimately be underdogs next week. Against Simon Middleton’s squad of professionals they have lost their last seven meetings. Granted, after falling short in equalling their biggest victory over Ireland by just two points, next week will be their best opportunity in recent years to end that unwanted streak.
Annick Hayraud drafted in several sevens players for the encounter in Dublin — among them Romane Menager, who orchestrated France’s sixth. Hayraud is almost certain to employ that tactic against the Red Roses, who will be without their own sevens playmakers Meg Jones and Alex Matthews, with the duo having returned to train with Great Britain’s Olympics squad.
So great is England’s depth these days that Middleton will be faced with another selection headache. “We’ll look back at both games before naming a team for the final. I’ll probably just put 23 names in a hat,” he joked after England put Italy to the sword last week.
Much has been made of Zoe Harrison’s battle at fly-half with Helena Rowland, but the most intriguing choice Middleton will make is whether he deems returning, veteran captain Sarah Hunter his starting No.8 over Poppy Cleall, who has shone in the position and up for Player of the Championship.