England and France: Serial Six Nations rivals

England v France

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

Photo: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images

11 thoughts on “England and France: Serial Six Nations rivals

  1. As an Englishman I like and am fascinated by all the other nations in the 6N – if they choose to hate me because I am English then that is their right – but I feel sorry for them if they do; hate withers your soul.

    So Lievremont can tell us how much he dislikes the English – he can lump us all in one bucket – he can ignore the fact that we are a diverse people of 45 million ranging from the cultures of Northumbria down to the festivals of Cornwall – he can ignore our music, our literature, our engineers, scientists, philosophers, theologians, political thinkers, comedians, actors, leaders, academics, inventors and humanitarians – he can ignore our traders and explorers who have visited and engaged with every nation on the planet – he can label us as “insular” and dismiss us – but then he misses the opportunity to learn more about a nation that shares so much history with his own nation and how we have inspired each other – which is quite a bland decision to make

  2. Well put Nick. If we were that insular would we really have all jumped on ships and set off all over the world. Doubtful.

    Jimmymc1, was going to include that stat but the answer is 2005 (excluding a World Cup warmup match in 2007) which isn’t really that big a deal. However they have only won there twice in 24 years (the other was 1997).

  3. I must say I feel quite embarassed with what ML said. I think it was quite stupid from him. I don’t think the French are less patriotic than the English. We don’t sing as much that’s true. It is also true the guys from South West France don’t like you very much when it comes to rugby. Probably because most of our players come from villages and don’t have the same social roots as your players at least it was the case in the past. But I think a vast majority of the French have quite a good opinion of England and the British in general. In a certain way one always has to admire its best enemy.
    I would even support England to a Southern hemisphere team.
    To go back to rugby I am not that scared of the Saturday’s game and even feel for once a bit of confidence. It is much better when we are the challengers than when we are supposed to win with ease like 2 and 3 years ago and even last year.
    I would say France to win by 1 to 9 points. I might be wrong.

  4. Nice Cookie, really rising above it!!

    Can’t wait for the match – i’ve got that pre-match excitement i used to have about 5 years ago that i swore i’d never allow myself to get suckered into again!

  5. Antoine, good to get a French perspective on it. And I agree that amid all the banter there’s quite a lot of admiration which underpins the rivalry. Pretty childish from Lievremont.

    The irony is that off the sports field the English are just about the least patriotic people around, not least because we’re not allowed to be as things like our flag now seem to be a symbol of racism acccording to the Liberal Fascists at the Guardian.

    Sorry, had to get that off my chest.

    Quite nervous about Sat, don’t quite know what to expect. This England team is still unproven against a top side who can both give us a real battle upfront and is organised in defence. A win here will be a huge stride forward. However it’s nice to be looking at it with expectation rather than just blind hope.

  6. Stuart – Controversial! I read the Guardian but won’t comment..

    Can’t wait until Saturday – I’m feeling fairly confident. I was at the ’05 loss at Twickers; it was the boot of Yachvili that won it for them that day but I’m much more confident facing him right now than Morgan Parra. I’m a bit disappointed that Parra’s been dropped in all honesty.

  7. Stuart – you are right to be nervous.
    after the french attitude in Dublin, they mean business and i dont think they will not be turbning up.

    all the chat in france (a mate plays over there) is that its world cup year, the french feel they have the right players and leaders (duasatoir, harinord & rougerie) to win the world cup and masochistically really fancy have a go @ NZ on their home turf.

    so no body should be expectign the frogs not to turn up mentally!

  8. Sorry Tom, actually only referring to about 2 columnists there. A bit of a Marc Lievremont-style sweeping statement from me. Apologies, I’ve caught the bug.

    I remain unconvinced by the current French team because of how they collapsed after last year’s Grand Slam which really they only won because everybody else was rubbish. But must admit that they seem to have a focus about them in this championship and also have about 3 more gears to go through. And I am not a massive fan of Yachvili but he’s massively influential and has done for us before. He’s not that suited to the current French style of play because he slows the game down to his own pace and never allows a fly half to run the game but he’s very good at marshalling his forwards and getting up the oppo’s nose.

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