Earlier this week, with sporting eyes largely fixated on machinations at the top of the footballing world, the findings of a study by the Women’s Sport Trust were released. Entitled “Closing the Visibility Gap”, it showed that women’s sport could generate more than £1 billion annually in the United Kingdom by 2030 – provided the visibility of female athletes and teams is increased.
As England and France meet to decide this reshaped Women’s Six Nations it is particularly pertinent. After the indignance felt by many, and conveyed publicly by a number of England squad members, at the group games being hidden behind reruns of antiques programmes on the red button, and with extremely limited pre or post-match coverage, this final between the two best sides in the Northern Hemisphere will sit, crucially, in plum position on BBC Two for a Saturday afternoon sporting spring centrepiece at the Twickenham Stoop.
It is a mark of the remarkable squad depth England have developed that they will seek another Six Nations triumph with their captain on the bench. For this defining game in the calendar Poppy Cleall has been preferred, on form and skillset, to Sarah Hunter at the base of the scrum.
While Hunter is still working her way back from a neural issue that threatened her career and severely impacted her day-to-day life, this is perhaps a first true indication that in an incredibly competitive and interchangeable area of this England side even the vastly experienced captain is no longer a certain pick.
“She was disappointed because she wants to start every game like any of the players,” said head coach Simon Middleton of Hunter. “She understands the situation in terms of what we think we are going to need in this game. She’s never asked or expected to be selected because she is captain, and she never has been.”
Hunter’s experience and leadership will add value from the bench, particularly on an occasion like this. The very concept of a Six Nations final is a new one but a vital opportunity for this England side, who are beginning to ascend to a level beyond their nearest neighbours, even when below their best.
Yet their record in truly high-pressure games remains a question mark, and one that will punctuate much of the discussion between now and the World Cup in the autumn of next year. At the 2017 World Cup they were beaten in the final by New Zealand and befell a similar fate to the Black Ferns two years later in the deciding game of the Women’s Rugby Super Series in California.
“I think it is really nice that it is a final,” Emily Scarratt, who captains the side from outside centre, explained. “You don’t get many opportunities to be in finals and to practice that kind of week.
“There are no second chances in a final, there is a championship on the line. To have that opportunity now against one of the very top teams in the world is going to be really good for us.”
On what is likely to be a flat, dry track at the Twickenham Stoop, Middleton noted the particular threat of what he termed the “buzzing ‘B’s” in the French back three: rhyming couplet Caroline Boujard and Emilie Boulard, and Cyrielle Banet, twice a try-scorer when these two met on the other side of the Chertsey Road in the autumn.
England, via the calm stroke of Scarratt’s boot, snatched victory with the final kick on that occasion after the innovative introduction of all eight of their substitutes at once lifted a middling performance at Twickenham.
That win may have extended their winning run against their closest European rivals to seven games, but France appear to now be playing with a confidence, creativity and intensity to match Middleton’s side.
For a tournament so far short of competitive games, this could be the perfect final spectacle.
“We want to showcase what we do and our sport to as many people as possible,” said Scarratt.
“The game is going to be a pretty good one, and hopefully the people that tune in, whether they be new viewers or old fans, really enjoy it and get behind it.”