Part One: the Lead-up
(If you’re anxious for the action, scroll straight to Part Two)
Rather than stick to the side that triumphed over the Black Ferns, France continued their policy of rotation to preserve freshness: an interesting response to their two remaining games, first against England, then the USA.
This meant Brandy Cazorla, who had flown in to replace Romane Ménager, gained an immediate third cap on the flank. A new centre combination of Camille Cabalou and Elise Pignot would face Amber Reed and Emily Scarratt; Camille Imart would play her second game on the trot against England at No 10.
A win against England was important to them in every possible way, yet players who led the triumph over ‘les Blacks’ were not named as starters for this follow-up. Only time would tell whether this strategy was the wise one. Sadly their options were restricted by two further injuries (Maëlle Filopon and Gabrielle Vernier).
Annick Hayraud told her charges they needed to follow up their outstanding performance in Round 3 with a similar show against an English side that is ‘very strong, organised and well oiled.’
Simon Middleton offered as full-strength a side as was possible, given that a round dozen contracted players were missing (* see below).
The first-choice pack from the 6 Nations was restored up front, Marlie Packer now fit again.
All the backs bar Leanne Riley started the series against the USA. They would be looking for a far more fluent performance against the French. And the management wouldn’t want them to complete their scoring as early as the 58th minute. Fortunately, Sarah McKenna was another player declared fit to play after suffering a knock two rounds earlier.
England’s starting XV totalled 604 caps.
|15 Jessy Trémoulière||Sarah McKenna|
|14 Caroline Boujard||Lydia Thompson|
|13 Elise Pignot||Emily Scarratt|
|12 Camille Cabalou||Amber Reed|
|11 Cyrille Banet||Kelly Smith|
|10 Camille Imart||Zoe Harrison|
|9 Pauline Bourdon||Leanne Riley|
|1 Annaëlle Deshayes||Vickii Cornborough|
|2 Laure Touyé||Heather Kerr|
|3 Clara Joyeux||Sarah Bern|
|4 Céline Ferer||Cath O’Donnell|
|5 Audrey Forlani||Abbie Scott|
|6 Brandy Cazorla||Poppy Cleall|
|7 Coumba Diallo||Marlie Packer|
|8 Gaëlle Hermet (captain)||Sarah Hunter (captain)|
|16 Agathe Sochat||Lark Davies|
|17 Caroline Thomas||Ellena Perry|
|18 Célia Domain||Hannah Botterman|
|19 Madoussou Fall||Zoe Aldcroft|
|20 Axelle Berthomieu||Sarah Beckett|
|21 Morgane Peyronnet||Claudia Macdonald|
|22 Laure Sansus||Emily Scott|
|23 Marine Ménager||Millie Wood|
Part Two: the Match – Hideously close!
The game could hardly have been closer, almost a carbon-copy of the Canada-England clash.
The French showed they meant business, and how! Right near the start they took a leaf out of the English copy-book with a cross-kick that fell into Cyrille Banet’s hands. She dropped over the line to erase memories of Jess Breach’s early try at Doncaster. 0-5
The Red Roses went back on attack. At a scrum near the French line, Sarah Hunter couldn’t control the ball; it squirted out, Leanne Riley looked open-side, changed her mind and Kelly Smith found the space to squeeze in by the left flag-pole. 5-5
The pace was intense. The French were more comfortable in the scrum than England would have liked, and their attacks were varied and imaginative. A worrying gap appeared down the English blind-side of a scrum; Gaëlle Hermet fed Caroline Boujard, Lydia Thompson couldn’t nail her and the winger shot through to score a great try. Jessy Trémoulière converted. 5-12
By the 39th minute Trémoulière had slotted two penalties, and the French lead was taking on worrying proportions. They were holding English attacks with something to spare and their own counters were proving hard to pin down.
On 49 minutes Harrison hoisted a deep cross-kick that Boujard failed to deal with; she stumbled as she tried to net it, only to leave Scarratt with a touch-down close to the dead-ball line. 10-18
England were finding it hard to gain more points. Their forward drives were relentless, but lacked imagination. The French could stand in their line of advance, tackle and wait for an error. Time after time a knock-on prevented the expected score,
It took another twenty minutes before yet another cross-kick from Harrison – this time to the left – found Scarratt wide out leaping high to collect it, as she has so many times on the Sevens field. She dropped gratefully over the line. This time she converted the kick, and we were in for another session of shortening finger-nails.
Eight minutes from time yet another penalty – this time to England – and Scarratt edged her side in front for the first time. 20-18
From there, they showed their rugby nous, keeping the ball tight as they moved from breakdown to breakdown. In the heat of battle this wasn’t straightforward; they had lost the ball on contact several times during the game. But here every forward was on point. The pods of three appeared every time. Riley could control each phase to left and to right.
As the last two minutes ticked by, the French were unable to pick the lock. When time ran out, Riley flung a last pass back to Harrison, and the ball was safe in touch.
Result: England 20 France 18
Referee: Aimee Barrett-Theron
Player of the Match: Emily Scarratt
This wasn’t the way the English planned to win the game, that’s certain, but the French didn’t let them open out as they had in the 6 Nations contest. It was a titanic struggle which the French deserved to win till those last few moments when they made untypical errors, caused no doubt by the extreme pressure they had been through.
This was an epic match, perhaps the best of the series thus far. The flowing, open movements were rare but magical. The battle for possession relentless and all-consuming.
*The Missing Persons Bureau
Mo Hunt (injured on tour)