For people of a certain age, my age to be precise, England v France will always be the big one. I grew up at a time when the Celtic nations were largely pretty poor and England v France was the acid test, the real battle for supremacy. The others had their moments but it was really all about the old enemy.
The statistics speak for themselves. Between 1991-2004, England v France has directly decided the fate of the Championship on no fewer than 5 occasions. On four of these it has been settled in France’s favour although that is actually more of a testimony to England’s consistency as challengers in those years than any hold France may have over them. On only one occasion was it a straight shoot-out in the final game of the season and England won that narrowly in 1991. There were also some titanic World Cup battles in these years.
During this period, England had an 80% win record in the Championship, losing only 12 games – two games twice (1993 and 2004), one game on eight occasions and four Grand Slams (1991, 1992, 1995 and 2003). This is a staggering level of consistency. England’s travails since then should be viewed in the context that fans’ expectations were sky-high after a decade and a half of near dominance.
Only France challenged that dominance. France had a 67% winning record in that time also winning four Grand Slams (1997, 1998, 2002 and 2004). But they also suffered some very poor seasons. In fact excluding their Grand Slam seasons they had about a 50-50 record in the other years in this period. For reference, in that time Ireland and Scotland had records a little better than 40% and Wales a little under 35%.
This shows that when France are good, they are very good, and when they are not they are pretty average. One of the things which has peeved them off about the English over this period is their consistency, and they view the English with a grudging admiration as a result. England meanwhile are more open in both their admiration for the French attitude style of play and their amusement at their rival’s propensity to collapse in a heap like an Australian front row. Which peeves the French off even more.
This brings us neatly to Marc Lievremont whose small-minded and rather pathetic comments just added further fuel to the fire. By stating that everybody hates the English, he is trying to get a rise out of them. But the fact is that the English could not really care less what Lievremont or many of his countrymen have to say in that respect. And the French, nothing if not self-important, get even more peeved by the fact that the English are taking no notice of what he is saying, not realising that he is demonstrating the very arrogance of which he is accusing the English.
Without wanting to dwell too much on these comments, it should be noted that the English are just about the last people left in the world about whom you can say these sorts of things without being branded a racist, which makes his comments somewhat cowardly as there is unlikely to be a riposte. So, arrogant? I would go with incredibly tolerant if I were you Marc. Yes everybody loves to see England lose at sport and that is all good fun. But in the modern world it does not stretch to much more than that.
Having said all this, Lievremont’s comments should be accorded the amount of attention they deserve, which is very little. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then in truth, for all the aggressive rhetoric, these teams have been tickling each other up for some time. Bernard Laporte tried to morph his team into a carbon copy of the traditional England, playing safety first rugby and quashing the natural attacking instincts of many of his players. It never seemed to sit that comfortably, particularly in the latter part of his tenure.
England for their part have become slightly embarrassed at their stereotype as narrow boring grinders and have attempted to spread their wings. Until this season they had looked even less comfortable than France in their attempted metamorphosis. All this is further evidence that in truth this is a rivalry built upon considerable levels of mutual admiration.
Hardly anything needs to be said to get the blood up for such an encounter. History aside, the Anglo-French rivalry remains as red-blooded as ever on the rugby field. That is where the battles are fought these days with no quarter asked or shown. They formed the cornerstone of my rugby upbringing and I am sure many others will be the same.
We should be very careful before we start branding this game a championship decider. If France win they are all but home and hosed unless Wales or Italy can rip up the form book but England have one win in Dublin in their last five visits and none in their last three. But neither England nor France will be looking beyond Saturday. With all due respect to the other teams, I hope they will indulge us in our excitement. For this supporter it does not get any bigger than England playing France for the spoils.
By Stuart Peel