Le Crunch – England versus France – is a rivalry that has grown increasingly intense in the 115 years that it has been played, setting supporters’ pulses racing on both sides of divide.
England are not short of rivals in the northern hemisphere — or the southern hemisphere for that matter — but a nation synonymous with forward power has long valued victory over France higher than almost any other.
Perhaps that stems from the French ability to mix artistry with agriculture as balletic backs line up alongside fearsome forwards.
Former England hooker Brian Moore, who played in more than one heated test against France, admitted in 2003 that he thought of the contest as ‘La Guerre’ (The War) but for many it has come to be known simply as ‘Le Crunch’.
What is it?
‘Le Crunch’ is a term often used to describe matches between the senior men’s and women’s teams of England and France. It is unclear exactly when it was first coined but what is indisputable is that the term gained popularity in the late 1980s and 1990s as the men’s teams became the preeminent forces in the Five Nations Championship.
Ahead of the Five Nations match between the teams at Twickenham in March 1997, Chris Hewett wrote in the Independent: “Each individual [championship] encounter generates and thrives within its own unique atmosphere and Le Crunch, as this particular match always seems to be labelled these days, is way out there on its own.”
When was the first match?
The first test match between the two men’s teams was played in Paris on 22 March, 1906. England won that contest 35-8 and followed that up with a 41-13 victory in Richmond on 5 January, 1907, the first time the two teams had played each other on English soil.
England’s women played France for the first time in the semi-final of the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup, at Cardiff Arms Park on 12 April, 1991. As in the first men’s meeting 85 years earlier it was England who won, 13-0, to book their place in the final. By that time, a Great Britain women’s team had already faced France on four occasions, beginning on 19 April, 1986 in Richmond, when the French won 14-8.
Where is it played?
Parc des Princes was the venue for the first men’s match in 1906 and from 1974 until 1996, France’s home matches were all held at the stadium. Since 1998, the Stade de France — built for the FIFA World Cup that year — has hosted Les Bleus’ home matches. Between 1908-72 another stadium in Paris, Stade Colombes, hosted France’s men. Various club grounds have played host to matches between France and England’s women’s teams. In 2020, 14,000 spectators watched England beat their rivals 19-13 at Stade du Hameau in Pau in February, while Stade des Alpes in Grenoble hosted the teams nine months later.
France’s first two visits to England were hosted at Richmond’s Athletic Ground and Welford Road in Leicester respectively. Since 1911, Twickenham has been the venue for England’s home matches. Like their French counterparts, England’s women have travelled around the country. On 16 November, 2019 some 9,699 fans witnessed the team’s dramatic 17-15 victory at Sandy Park in Exeter.
Do the teams play for a trophy?
No, neither the men’s nor the women’s teams play for a specific piece of silverware, such as the Calcutta Cup, when they face each other.
Who wins it?
Since their first match in Paris in 1906, France and England’s men’s teams have met 107 times. England have won 59 tests to France’s 41, while there have been seven draws. The biggest margin of victory enjoyed by England was 37-0 in 1911 — the first match at Twickenham — while they amassed 55 points at the famous stadium in beating Les Bleus 55-35 in 2015. France have twice beaten England by 25 points — 37-12 at Colombes in 1972 and 31-6 at Stade de France in 2006. The French have never scored more than 37 points against the English.
Of the 47 women’s tests between the two countries, England have won 33 and France 14. The highest scoring match came at Castle Park in Doncaster during the 2019 Six Nations, with hosts England winning 41-26. England’s biggest win was 57-0 on 15 February, 2003. The biggest margin of victory enjoyed by France was 19-0, which came on 21 April, 1999.
Who has played in Le Crunch the most times?
No male player has represented England on more occasions than Jason Leonard, so it should come as little surprise that the World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee has also played in ‘Le Crunch’ the most times. His 18 tests against France came between 1991-2003 and comprised 12 wins and six defeats. However, four of Leonard’s appearances came as a replacement meaning his former team-mate Rory Underwood holds the English record for number of starts. All 15 of Underwood’s appearances against France — which included eight wins, six defeats and one draw — came as a starter.
Frenchman Fabien Pelous also made 15 starts in ‘Le Crunch’ matches. In total, he played 17 times against England between 1996-2007, and finished on the winning side on 10 occasions, losing the other seven. Legendary winger-cum-centre Philippe Sella also represented Les Bleus 15 times against England. Sella won only six of those matches between 1983-95 however, losing eight and playing out one draw. Both Pelous and Sella have been inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
Who has scored the most tries?
Both Sella and Michel Crauste scored four test tries against England — more than any other Frenchman. Crauste’s tries, which were worth three points each, came in nine matches between 1958-66. England’s leading try-scorer in the fixture is Daniel Lambert, who touched down eight times in just three matches between 1907-11. The winger also kicked five conversions and two penalties. Current England speedster, Jonny May, might well overtake Lambert’s mark. The winger has scored seven tries in eight tests against France since 2014.
Who has scored the most points?
World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Jonny Wilkinson is the fixture’s highest points scorer. Wilkinson scored 161 points in 14 matches against Les Bleus, and his tally is more than double that of the highest Frenchman, Dimitri Yachvili, who notched 80 points. Current England captain Owen Farrell has amassed 106 points in just 10 matches against the French.
Has anyone ever been sent off?
Only two players have ever been shown a red card during a men’s England v France fixture — and both came in the same match. England travelled to the Parc des Princes on 15 February, 1992 hoping to take a stride towards a second successive Five Nations grand slam. They did so, but only after French front-row forwards Gregoire Lascube and Vincent Moscato had been given their marching orders, the former for a stamp on Martin Bayfield and latter for a head-butt on Jeff Probyn. Both players were subsequently banned for 28 weeks and neither played for France again.
Has Le Crunch taken place at Rugby World Cup?
Yes. The pair’s first Rugby World Cup meeting came at the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup when England beat France 13-0 to reach the final. Six months later, the men’s teams played out an ill-tempered RWC 1991 quarter-final that eventual finalists England won 19-10. The men met again in the RWC 1995 bronze final, which France won 19-9, and the RWC 2003 semi-final, in which England triumphed 24-7. It was the English who again emerged victorious when the teams met in the last four at RWC 2007 before France exacted their revenge in the quarter-finals of RWC 2011. The teams were also drawn to play in Pool C at RWC 2019 but their match was cancelled due to the impact of Typhoon Hagibis.
Following their first meeting in Cardiff in 1991, England’s women beat France in Galashiels three years later to book their place in the final of RWC 1994. The teams met again in the pool stage of RWC 2006, when England won 27-8, and the RWC 2017 semi-finals, in which the English triumphed 20-3. The teams will meet each other again at New Zealand 2021, having been drawn together in Pool C. France’s women have never beaten England at a Rugby World Cup.