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Agricole going out at the top

World Cups - as well as being great occasions - are also a time when we say farewell to great players. And one of France's greatest confirmed last week that she will depart the rugby field for the final time next August. But it could just be her greatest year ever.

Sandrine Agricole - the grande dame  of the French team - confirmed to ScrumQueens last weekend that she will be retiring from the game after the World Cup. France's 40-20 defeat at Twickenham was therefore her (and her captain, Marie-Alice Yahe's) last game in England. 

"The book will be closed," she told us.

It was an appropriate venue to make the announcement as it was on the same ground ten years ago that she played her first game for Les Bleus, in a game that she would perhaps otherwise have wished to forget. On that occasion the French, with five new caps (including Laetitia Salles, who also played on Saturday), went down to what was (and remains) their biggest ever defeat in the fixture.

Despite being in the team since 2003, next year will only be Agricole's second World Cup. Although on top of her game in 2006, and a fixture in the French team, she missed the World Cup in Canada owing to injury - something that has been a recurring theme in her career, meaning that she has "only" played 72 times for her country so far - behind Estelle Sartini (90), Laetitia Salles (80) and Stephanie Provost (76) in all-time list.

Born in 1980, Sandrine did not take to the game straightaway."I started rugby at the age of 11 years during during my sixth year at school. It is thanks to my PE teacher who unwittingly awakened in me a great passion for rugby. I enrolled in a club in Noisy-le-grand [in Paris], but I had to play with the boys. A year of that was enough and I decided to stop." 

She did not play again until she was 16, this time at at Villlers-sur-Marne, but again only lasting a season, for the same reason.

It was a problem that was not unique - the junior game (and especially the junior girls' game) was, and remains, not nearly as well developed in France as it is in most other major rugby nations. Whereas most of England's players at Twickenham took up rugby in their primary school years, most current French players did not start playing until they were at secondary school - or even later.

"Four years later [at the age of 21] I finally found a women's team, and I have been lacing up my boots ever since". 

That club was Gennevilliers, and within two years Sandrine was turning out at Twickenham for her first full national cap. After two years in Paris, in 2004 she moved to Brittany, joining Rennes - a club that only fields women's teams - where she has remained ever since.

By the time of the 2010 World Cup Sandrine was the national captain. However despite finishing fourth, for Agricole and Yahe there is an element of what might have been when they look back.

"It is vital to have a good preparation for a World Cup", they agreed after the England game. "We must play against hard, physical teams, and that is what we are doing this year. It is important for the French teams to work together. But four years ago we arrived in England with no matches at all, which was not good."

After 2010 every French player aged over 30 was retired - except one, Sandrine Agricole. And, although she handed the captaincy over to Yahe, she has remained a fixture in the team, when fit. 

At club level, Rennes were promoted to the Top 10 after her first season, and have been one of the leading clubs ever since. However, despite reaching the final in 2006 and 2011, they have never won the national championship - foiled on each occasion by Yahe's Perpignan team.

But this year - aided by the recruitment of three of Italy's leading players - Rennes enter the second half of the pool phase as France's only unbeaten team. 

Sandrine - who has never played better than she is now - could just end her career with with not just a national title, but perhaps a World Cup final as well. It would be fitting.

Sandrine - who has never played better than she is now - could just end her career with with not just a national title, and perhaps a World Cup final as well.