|Date: October 15, Saturday Start: 08:00 BST Place: Northland Events Centre, Whangarei|
|Coverage: BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Sounds and online radio commentary with live text commentary|
England face one of the toughest World Cup pool games against France on Saturday, but the record-breaking squad are so relaxed that another game is already on their minds.
The Red Roses stopped on their way from Auckland to Whangarei for a players vs staff cricket match.
The players won, but coach Simon Middleton disputes some of the refereeing calls.
As he laughs with captain Sarah Hunter as he recalls the match, the pressure of being heavy favorites to win the World Cup seems far off both shoulders.
On Saturday, it will be a different story.
“One of the greatest pool games”
England have won their last 10 Tests against France, but the victory has rarely been comfortable.
An average of less than nine points have separated the two sides in the last five meetings. Both teams are tipped to be World Cup winners, along with hosts New Zealand.
No wonder Hunter described Saturday as “probably one of the toughest and biggest pool games I’ve ever played”, admitting that the end of their winning streak against France “could come at any time”.
“To have England v France in the opening rounds of a tournament is quite unheard of,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
Middleton is also wary after France brought in new coach Thomas Darracq at the end of May.
“We’re starting from scratch because we haven’t beaten that coaching staff,” Middleton said. “There are definitely some differences in that game that we have to be aware of.
“Win one or lose 10 [in a row] it makes no difference. It’s a World Cup pool game, it’s a massive game.”
Coaching changes after England beat France to claim fourth consecutive Women’s Six Nations title. After losing 10 in a row, it was time to roll the dice.
But former France number eight Lenaig Corson says the change has left the team “really confused”.
“It’s strange to change the coaching structure so close to the Rugby World Cup,” he added.
“It doesn’t help the team. You need consistency.”
Warm-up for the semi-finals
Two teams from each pool – as well as the two best third-placed teams – will advance to the quarter-finals.
This means the outcome of the match is unlikely to affect whether either team are drawn from a group of World Cup debutants Fiji and South Africa, who are ranked 11th in the world.
England top the group after beating Fiji 84-19, while France are second after beating South Africa 40-5.
The two sides are currently set to meet again in the semi-finals, should they get that far.
The winner of the pool would surely go into that match with the head advantage and whoever wins on Saturday should set up a more favorable quarter-final opponent.
Middleton sees things differently and went so far as to suggest that his team would be better off losing.
“It’s not a terminal for either side, whatever,” Middleton said.
“Ironically, it probably won’t affect who you play on the line. It’s a really good chance to get back together.
“You probably learn more from failure.”
How could France stop England?
Regardless of the outcome, Saturday will be a showcase for some of the best players in the game.
Middleton shouted out France’s Madoussou Fall and number eight Romane Menager in his pre-match press conference.
Menager will do his best to get past England’s line, while Fall’s excellent defense will make it difficult for the Red Roses to return the favour.
England are looking to win a record 27th Test in a row. Of the last 60 Tests, they have lost just four: three against New Zealand and one against France.
That dominant run has been built on collective effort as well as individual brilliance.
England’s maul has become an almost unstoppable try-scoring weapon and France must tap into that if they are to have any chance of victory.
As if a World Cup pool game against cross-Channel opponents wasn’t enough, the return of talismanic flanker Marlie Packer from injury should add extra fuel to England’s fire.
“He’s lived to be released,” was the ominous warning of the would-be Captain Hunter. England’s most capped player on Saturday
“She wears her heart on her sleeve and plays like every minute is as important as the last. When you’re going up against the French, you want a Marlie Packer by your side.”
Kicking off at 08:00 BST, the game will kick off in time for breakfast in the UK. England may be doing their best to stay calm in the build-up, but it should be the tastiest offering of this Rugby World Cup.