With France, it’s always about the known unknowns.
Will they be fit? And will they perform on the road? Both posers have been answered emphatically at the Women’s Rugby World Cup with Les Bleus registering 20 tries and 120 points against Japan and Australia so far.
Ireland have managed just 6 and 43 points, respectively, against the same opposition. It doesn’t bode well for the hosts as the pair meet in a winner-takes-all Pool C encounter at UCD tomorrow night.
The French arrived in Dublin ranked fourth in the world but the general consensus was that they were a good distance short of the top three of England, New Zealand, and Canada. The evidence thus far is that the gap is not nearly so pronounced.
Head coach Samuel Cherouk assumed control just after Christmas and they duly finished third in the Six Nations, losing to Ireland and England, and with a number of players clearly far from a point where they could say they were in top shape.
The difference this last week has been immense.
Cherouk eschewed the usual warm-up games, preferring to embark on a series of camps from Brittany in the west, through Paris, and as far east as Clermont-Ferrand. The difference in the body fat ratios alone has been enormous.
Cherouk spoke before the tournament about how the New Zealand-Canada game earlier this summer saw more than 40 minutes’ ball-in-play time and so the emphasis has been on ballwork and fitness work.
“The training has been short and sharp,” said manager Annick Hayraud. “It’s very intense and replicating the levels of a Test match.”
Their preparations included some contact work with the national boys U19s side with game-specific scenarios run from scrums and lineouts. For someone like the 5’ 3” wing Chloé Pelle, such sessions were an eye opener.
“They are much more physical, the guys,” she said.
Cherouk has gone with a squad of few surprises, although sevens star Camille Grassineau missed out. The pack that started against Australia included seven of those who faced Ireland in the Six Nations but the backline has been reconfigured.
Confidence was already high prior to the tournament, with the squad spotted at one point during their preparations wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the legend ‘Champions 2017’.
“We are ambitious, no doubt,” said Hayraud in the build-up. “We have shown that we want to be world champions and should not be afraid to say so.”
Semi-finalists six times, they have never reached the decider and the hurt of losing to Canada on home soil at the penultimate hurdle three years ago was only lightly salved by defeating Ireland in the 3rd/4th-place play-off.
Their record against the Irish is good, too. That 2014 win in Paris was one of eight from eleven claimed over the course of their meetings this last decade.
Seven of the last eight games have been won by one or other by a converted try or less and Pelle was cautious last Sunday in the wake of their win over the Wallaroos when Ireland’s struggles thus far in the tournament were pointed out to her.
“Yeah, but we know that Ireland is a really good team so you don’t have to judge them on that,” she said after hitting the Aussies for two of France’s eight tries. “We have to be ready to have a big, physical opposition and we will have to do our best to beat them.”
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