Climbing Everest: France await England in Six Nations decider

Finally, 11 months after John Mitchell's appointment as head coach in May 2023, we are about to learn something about this new-look England team. Only France stand in the way of a sixth consecutive Six Nations title, but tantalisingly, Les Bleues are the only side equipped with the tools and ability to beat them.

For England, the past five weeks have been a procession. Their dominance was exemplified in the 88-10 thrashing of Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday that ensured their one-point lead over France going into the final round of matches. It was a contest that had looked to be England's toughest of the championship up to that point as they faced a resurgent Ireland team fresh off a confidence-boosting 36-5 win over Wales a week prior.

And yet some bookmakers had the Red Roses at 1/500 to win ahead of kick-off. Those odds were set for a reason. The ruthlessness with which England repeatedly scythed through the Ireland line on their way to scoring 14 tries was almost unnerving. It took just 19 minutes for the home team to score the first four that secured a crucial bonus point.

It is important to not do a disservice to the teams below the top two -- the competition in this year's tournament is as high as it has been for a long time, with Scotland seemingly emerging as the best of the rest. England, though, have set the standard. It is not up to them to slow down; the onus is on the others to catch up.

"I'm sure some people will chat about the competitiveness and that kind of stuff, but at the end of the day we drive ourselves inside the way we prepare and that's all we can focus on," Mitchell said after Saturday's victory.

"I don't think we really are in a position to judge the competition or the competitiveness. At the end of the day, all we can really focus on is the way that we prepare and I think our standards and the way that we prepare have probably gone up a little bit in terms of level as well."

England's levels of professionalism are unrivalled. Their 32 contracted players are put through individual training regimes and have access to state-of-the-art facilities, video sessions and ice baths. Even their snack breaks are designed to resemble half-time in a Test match.

However, France are closing the gap. Only five points separated the two teams in front of a world record crowd at Twickenham last year, six were between them in the World Cup in 2022 and 12 points proved the difference in Bayonne almost exactly two years ago. France under-20s inflicted the worst defeat ever suffered by any England women's team in a 74-0 drubbing in Rouen last weekend. The revolution is coming.

The Red Roses aren't too concerned by the prospect of having their superiority challenged. Mitchell and his players have their eyes set on next year's home World Cup, repeatedly describing it as their "Everest." Everything is geared towards preparation for the tournament.

It is a big part of why the new coach has diversified the England game plan away from the set pieces and forward play prioritised by his predecessor Simon Middleton. Mitchell's swashbuckling style is also designed to attract supporters and "fill the top green seats" at the 82,000-capacity Twickenham ahead of the big occasion.

The new approach has already enabled the likes of fullback Ellie Kildunne -- this year's leading try scorer (9) -- and wingers Abby Dow and Jess Breach to come to the fore. The fleet-footed trio have scored 13 tries between them in England's last two matches. However, old habits die hard and the Red Roses have shown they are still more than happy to lean on the power of their forwards when necessary.

The recent lack of worthy opponents has led Mitchell to foster competition within his squad. He has been ruthless with his team selections, most notably dropping England captain and reigning World Rugby Player of the Year Marlie Packer to the bench for the match against Scotland, stating: "There's no such thing as rotation."

Mitchell has said the Red Roses' squad depth reminds him of the All Blacks side he coached between 2001 and 2003. Tatyana Heard, Meg Jones, Emily Scarratt, Sophie Bridger and Sydney Gregson are all excelling with their respective clubs and vying for the spots in the midfield -- each of them would arguably have a place in the XV of any other team in the tournament.

France, though, are capable of beating anyone on their day and are stocked with elite-level talent of their own as they look to deliver a first Grand Slam since 2018. Annaëlle Deshaye, Assia Khalfaoui and Madoussou Fall headline a pack that is one of the few in world rugby able to resist the shove of the England forwards. Lina Queyroi's goal kicking (75%) has comfortably outmatched that of her opposite number Holly Aitchison (51.72%). Snipe-happy scrum-half Pauline Bourdon-Sansus undoubtedly has the nous to spot the tightest of gaps, while Gabrielle Vernier and Emilie Boulard will give Sarah Hunter's England defence its first real test.

So far, the only problems that England have faced in this tournament have been of their own making. Mitchell has challenged his team to "play on the edge" but they have repeatedly tipped over it, picking up two yellow cards and two reds in four matches. No. 8 Sarah Beckett is back in contention for the trip to Bordeaux having served a three-match ban for a 'crocodile roll' tackle on the opening weekend that left Italy centre Michela Sillari requiring surgery on a fractured leg.

They know the damage that ill-discipline can inflict. It was Lydia Thompson's red card for a high tackle in the 18th minute of the World Cup final in 2022 that proved pivotal as New Zealand recovered from a 14-0 deficit to win 34-31 in a loss that stands as England's solitary defeat in the past five years.

Saturday's title showdown is one that England's captain has experienced time and again. Packer, who has spent more of her adult life as a plumber than a professional rugby player, won the World Cup in 2014, is on the cusp of her eighth Grand Slam and became the seventh England player to earn 100 caps for her country when she led the team out against Italy in Parma at the start of the campaign. When she made her international debut in 2008, Barack Obama was preparing to run for the U.S. Presidency.

She has already identified the importance of silencing what will likely be a raucous home crowd in South West France.

"[Playing in] France is very different than playing a home game with your home fans," she told a news conference after the win over Ireland.

"The French fans are very different, but also we can flip that on its head because also the French fans, when their team's not going the way they want it to be, they lose, they don't get behind their team.

"So we just need to make sure we go out there and put a performance in and not worry about the outside noise."

Interestingly, outside noise is the one thing England haven't experienced on their run to becoming the No. 1 ranked side in the world. They are a team that have so far been unfairly denied the spotlight in their own country. Next summer's World Cup will likely bring the wider public recognition that they deserve, but the climb up the mountain begins in earnest on Saturday.