The players representing France and England should need no introductions when they line up alongside each other in the Stade Jean Dauger tunnel ahead of their Women’s Six Nations Championship decider on Saturday.
Since France’s last victory in the fixture, an 18-17 win in Grenoble during their 2018 Grand Slam-winning campaign, the teams have met nine times.
England have won all those encounters, but only three of their victories in that run have been earned by more than six points. There is a deep respect between the two teams, and Saturday’s match promises to be their most keenly contested yet.
Not only is the Grand Slam on the line in Bayonne, but as Red Roses full-back Ellie Kildunne admits, the fact France and England have been drawn together in Pool C of Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022 adds an extra dimension, if it were needed.
“There’s a lot of excitement. Everyone is in a really good place, we've enjoyed the build-up and we've worked really hard in training and in the games,” Kildunne said.
“We know that whenever you come up against France it's going to be a big match anyway, especially playing France away.
“But we rise to big occasions, so I think everyone's feeling really excited for the game to kick off and for us all to get started with the proper World Cup prep.”
She added: “It's never easy [playing France], and they are a really, really good team and each time they can bring out something a little bit different.
“They've got a lot of younger players coming through with a lot of ability and they're in our World Cup pool as well.
“So, every time we play them, it's almost like we see it as a prep for the World Cup, which is coming up very soon now.”
For England, securing a 10th successive victory against Les Bleues would not only wrap up a fourth successive undefeated Women’s Six Nations campaign but would be a considerable marker ahead of RWC 2021.
The Red Roses are scheduled to take on France at Northland Events Centre in Whangarei on 15 October, in a match that will be crucial for both teams’ hopes of winning the trophy.
“Even though [Saturday] is still a very, very, very big game, we've got bigger things coming as well,” Kildunne added.
“We really want to be able to put this one to bed and get the win that we're wanting so that come World Cup, we're in a good place and we've got a bit of confidence behind us to perform well again.”
Kildunne lined up at full-back for England when they last lost against France at Stade des Alpes four years ago, and she believes playing Les Bleues represents a “step up” from their Championship rivals.
“They don't stop working,” she said. “They've got a really big pack, a lot of tall girls in the pack and they've got good ball handlers and fast girls out in the backs too that are both steppy and have got a good kick on them.
“So, it's a step up from the other games that we've played, which you've always got to be conscious of when playing against them.
“But they just work really hard, they never stop. They always get the lucky bounce of everything, so you've got to keep on working and make sure that we're really clinical playing against them because we're not going to get many opportunities, we need to break them down.”
Competition for places
England head into the match in Bayonne on a 22-match winning run, but without captain Sarah Hunter who has been ruled out due to a rib injury suffered against Ireland.
Hunter’s importance to the team is highlighted by the fact she has joined the squad in a non-playing support role ahead of Saturday’s meeting with France.
Red Roses coach Simon Middleton has a squad packed with experience, though, and players capable of stepping into Hunter’s leadership role, such as centurion Emily Scarratt, Poppy Cleall and Zoe Harrison.
According to Kildunne, that strength in depth has been a key component of England’s current form as it means players must work hard to earn their place in the team.
“I don't think we are a complacent squad anyway because we know that the teams are coming hard and teams are getting better each game,” she said. “Every game we kind of act like it's a Grand Slam final rather than thinking that it's any less.
“But the competition in the team and in fighting for the starting places is tough and as we get closer and closer to the World Cup is only going to get harder.
“But, like I said, it does push you to be a better player. It pushes you to find different parts of your game that you might not have discovered yet and challenges you to keep on training hard and pushing to be better before the next game comes.”