France v England – Clermont-Ferrand, 9 November 2019
It’s been a tough struggle, but at last the Red Roses have overcome their great opponents away from home again. Just as significant, this was only France’s second home loss in eighteen games. New Zealand took the first of their two encounters in Toulon in November last year.
The omens looked pretty good for France. The day before, their manager Annick Hayraud and the 2018 World Player of the Year Jessy Trémoulière had been presented with the Gold Medal of their native local department, Puy de Dôme, becoming the first women to receive this honour.
But head coach Sam Cherouk knew the challenge that faced his team. England had overcome them twice this year, even if the second encounter was tight in the extreme.
This was another immense game, played out in front of a large passionate crowd of 13,706. One of their three local heroes, the same Jessy Trémoulière, put them in a good mood knocking over her second attempt at the posts. Katy Daley-Mclean was guilty of a high tackle. 3-0
France had large amounts of possession in that first quarter but couldn’t find a way through to the line. A strong defence was aided by some inaccuracy from the attackers.
England knew they had to keep their composure under this initial pressure. France ran fast from a free-kick for an early push; but Marlie Packer jackalled over the breakdown to win a penalty that Emily Scarratt knocked over from far out. 3-3
Their concentration paid off impressively in the second quarter, Lark Davies threw long to Zoe Aldcroft who set the driving maul going; it altered course dramatically left towards the posts, and the skipper was on the business end for her 26th international try. Even more conclusively, they went straight back on attack. The French couldn’t prevent another powerful rumble, and 26 became 27 inside those four minutes.
Les Bleues came back out determined to put things right, but fallible handling was to let them down agai. It needed a yellow card for Marlie Packer to give them an extra boost. Their one try came from a sustained attack on the English line. Bourdon twice spread to the blindside; the second time England paid for their missing body. Fed by Safi N’Diaye (her 70th cap today), Camille Boudaud squeezed over on the right touchline as Jess Breach tried to be in two places at once. Trémoulière made up for her early miss with a wonderful kick from the edge. 10-17
But the hosts couldn’t repeat the dose as the Red Roses had done before half-time. Instead, they were twice guilty of this season’s running gag, the overthrown line-out, to relieve England when they were under severe pressure. To cap it all they fell offside inside their own 22, letting Emily Scarratt knock over a final penalty from in front to ensure a clear victory.
So the result was either: Hunter 10 Scarratt 10, or more properly…
FRANCE: Tremoulière, Boujard, Boudaud, Vernier (Peyronnet, 72), M. Ménager (Jason, 72), Drouin, Bourdon (Sansus, 74), R. Ménager (Annery, 50), Hermet (captain), Mayans, N’Diaye, Corson (Ferer, 65). Joyeux (Pelle, 65), Sochat (Thomas, 48), Deshayes (Traore, 72)
ENGLAND: McKenna, Dow, Scarratt, Harrison (E. Scott, 66), Breach, Daley-Mclean, Riley (Hunt, 61), Hunter (captain), Packer, Beckett (Fleetwood, 71), A. Scott, Aldcroft (Cleall, 60), Bern (Brown, 60), Davies (Kerr, 74), Botterman (Perry, 66)
For once England did not use all eight benchers. Lydia Thompson lives to fight another day.
Referee: Joy Neville
We can be sure Scott Bemand would like to see his backs really running free at Exeter as they did on a previous visit. In recent games they’ve relied heavily on the cross-kick for success. More of the fluent interplay shown in last year’s Six Nations would send him and us home happy as sandboys next week
But the pack had the power and cohesion to answer the challenge posed by a ominous-looking French eight, reinforced by the returning Marjorie Mayans, Lénaïg Corson and Romane Ménager.
French reactions were divided. On the one hand, England were seen to have got away very lightly with high tackles in the first half. As Boudaud scored her try in the second, Joy Neville again called ‘high tackle’. On the other, the home pack and halves were singled out for strong criticism.
This was another French spectacular. We had no fewer than three World Players of the Year on view and three other nominees. But France were unable to close on England in the world rankings. They have made their task in the return match harder, but should still not be discounted.