Dublin, Glasgow, London, Montpellier and Padua host fixtures in this year’s Women’s Six Nations Championship, but the game that could decide the destination of the trophy will be staged right here in Yorkshire.
Doncaster may lack the big-city appeal of a nation’s capital or the aesthetic beauty of the French Riviera, but it is in that emerging South Yorkshire town where the two superpowers of European women’s rugby will converge tomorrow lunchtime.
England host France in the second game of the Women’s Six Nations at Castle Park, the home of Championship side Doncaster Knights.
It is the second England women’s international Doncaster has staged in three months and alongside Twickenham in London and Exeter’s Sandy Park, one of just three English grounds to host games in the competition this year.
England have already won in Dublin, eight days ago, when they thrashed Ireland 51-7, while France began the defence of their title in similarly convincing fashion by vanquishing Wales 52-3 in Montpellier.
Between them France and England have won all but two of the 17 Women’s Six Nations Championships to have taken place, with France winning the first in 2002 and the most recent, and England dominating around the turn of the decade.
Eleven months ago they were separated by just one point when Les Bleus prevailed 18-17 over the Red Roses in Grenoble.
Home field advantage may lie with England on this occasion, but for their head coach Simon Middleton – the Yorkshire-born former Castleford Tigers and Leeds Tykes dual-code player – there will be no under-estimating the size of the challenge.
“France are a formidable side. They’ve just come off a 1-1 series with New Zealand and, having watched those games, they could easily have won both,” Middleton told The Yorkshire Post.
“They are playing some great stuff.
“It’s the way they play, at a high tempo and they play a high-risk game.
“They’re comfortable with the ball being loose. They’ve got some really good individual players and a strong pack. Plus they have a depth of talent, so it’s going to be a massive challenge for us.
“And it’s great that this huge game is in Doncaster.”
England may have won this tournament nine times to the six of France, but the hosts are playing catch-up with their friends from across the Channel.
The French introduced full-time contracts for their players before England, who only did so last month, and the Red Roses have only won the competition once in the last six years.
“We have no misconception of the size of the challenge,” continued Middleton.
“We were thrilled with the way we played in Ireland. We were ahead of where I thought we would be, but we now have to improve to get a winning outcome.
“Given their recent form and the fact France come into the tournament as champions they rightly go into the game as favourites.
“But we have confidence in this squad and have had an excellent preparation through the week.”
Middleton has made four changes to the team that strolled to victory in Dublin.
Harlequins forwards Vickii Cornborough and Abbie Scott return to the starting line-up at prop and second-row, respectively, moving Poppy Cleall in a positional change to flanker.
Bristol Bears flanker Poppy Leitch has been called in to replace Marlie Packer, who is rested, having picked up a knock (shoulder) in England’s opening game against Ireland.
England centurion Katy Daley-Mclean, who scored 16 points and one of England’s eight tries in the tournament opener last Friday, again starts at fly-half in an unchanged backline.
Kirbymoorside’s Tatyana Heard, 24, who began playing at Malton & Norton, will earn her fourth cap at inside centre.
On the changes, Middleton added: “Vickii and Abbie bring considerable experience to the forward pack while Poppy is a great addition, having played consistently well in the Tyrrells Premier 15s and for the National Academy side in the autumn.
“We will rest Marlie this weekend with the aim of having her back later in the Championship.”
Kick-off is 12.45pm tomorrow with the game screened live on Sky Sports.
Tickets are available for purchase at the ground from 10am tomorrow.