The omens could hardly have been worse for the French. After losing their talismanic No 8 Romane Ménager to injury, Safi N’Diaye suffered an ankle injury that put her out of commission. After losing convincingly to the Maple Leafs, what chance would they have against the all-conquering Black Ferns?
Answer: they beat them convincingly 25-16.
This marks their second successive victory over the world champions. Whatever next?
The French looked well prepared mentally as well as physically. Marine Ménager drove down the left; the ball shifted quickly across to Jessy Trémoulière on the right. There she showed another glimpse of her class, offering an off-load to Caroline Boujard as she was being spun around in a tackle. Boujard made the line. 5-0
A penalty by Trémoulière stretched the lead. Her kicking was another major asset to her team. Like Daley-Maclean and Scarratt, she can hoof the ball great distances. The New Zealand back three grew wise to this, but it meant their counter-attacks had to start from a long way back.
One of the key features of the French performance was the quality of their off-loading. They had the confidence to send out these short passes in the heaviest of traffic. They didn’t always work, but often enough to breach the opposition line several times dangerously. Maëlle Filopon was the next to go over, and you wondered when the New Zealand riposte would begin.
Kendra Cocksedge, celebrating her 50th cap (only the second of her nation to achieve this feat) and given the captaincy for the day, kicked a penalty to get them going.
One more penalty each brought the half-time score to 18-6.
Tradition dictates that, whatever the midway position, the Black Ferns would press relentlessly till the final whistle and win the day. Well, this didn’t happen till the last few minutes, but by then they were 25-6 down, thanks to another magnificent burst by Trémoulière.
If anyone doubted her right to the title of World Player of the Year, here was the proof. On another occasion she had to scramble back to retrieve the ball; instead of being scragged to the ground by onrushing forwards, she manoeuvred herself forward fifteen metres to offer her pack another safe ruck ball.
The Black Ferns were not sitting watching these events; they were going flat out, but attack after attack faltered. One missing element is real pace on the edges. Several times Boujard and Ménager were able to haul their opponents in or hurl them into touch.
The French attacked the line again. After several pick-and-goes Pauline Bourdon sent the ball wide. Very sadly, as the ball came to Filopon, she twisted awkwardly and lay prostrate. We must hope that the leg injury she suffered wasn’t the same as the one that brought an early end to her appearance last time out versus New Zealand.
Bourdon’s replacement, Laure Sansus, made telling breaks that threatened the New Zealand line, but the French weren’t able to increase their tally. Instead, it was the Black Ferns who attacked – almost in desperation at this late stage. On 73 minutes they won a penalty try from a ruck close to the line, and Joy Neville brandished a yellow card.
But having reached 16 points, the Ferns could get no further. A great triumph for les Bleues.
Result: France 25 New Zealand 16
Referee: Joy Neville