France v England – Straight Royal Flush
Not a picture-perfect start to proceedings. Three key matches all starting within half-an-hour of each other on a Sunday is not my idea of good planning. At least the choice of the day, 02022020, was sublimely rare.
Another totally gripping drama between the two best sides in the northern hemisphere. A crowd of 14, 230 rolled up to give the English a taste of what real French rugby is like in the deep south-west. But they were kept quiet in the opening minutes as the Red Roses took charge.
Abby Dow continued her fine form with three runs; England reached to the French 5-metre line.
On 9 minutes Dow scored the opening try – her second in succession against France in an away game, but this time much simpler for her, from an overlap two metres out. (0-5)
Eight minutes later England got their maul rolling to dislocate the French forwards and bring a try for Vicky Fleetwood. Emily Scarratt converted this one. (0-12)
It took the French 25 minutes to get on the front foot. Laure Sansus started the move off, passed to Gaëlle Hermet who broke from a ruck, slipped defenders and found Sansus on her shoulder again for the decisive pass. It was her second in successive games against the English.
Fourteen thousand flags waved as the French threatened destruction. Now we had a proper game on our hands.
Five minutes from the break Jessy Trémoulière popped a penalty over to send shivers down the spines of doubtful Thomases among the English supporters. But as France threatened the English 5-metre line again, Dow picked Trémoulière up and deposited on on her back – another reason why Simon Middleton has been selecting her so often.
The second 40 minutes provided the tight, energy-sapping rugby that offers the greatest excitement and the shortest finger-nails.
Middleton brought Sarah Bern straight on to replace Shaunagh Brown.
The policy had presumably been to test out the qualities of the two second-choice props, Brown and Hannah Botterman, knowing that they could be devastating in open play. As it turned out, the English set-scrum remains a source of concern. Even Bern and Vickii Cornborough, making a welcome return to win her 50th cap, were occasionally mangled by a powerful French unit. Richard Blaze can only work on technique here; there are no better props in the country than the four on call today.
Bern ran in brilliantly from 40 metres out, but the try was ruled out for crossing as Sarah Beckett got in the path of a defender.
It needed a sublime score from the English backs to widen the margin. Katy Daley-Mclean fed the ball right to Amber Reed, who was making another welcome recall to England ranks after a long break. The French back-line was already outnumbered, but under huge pressure Reed fed a deadly off-load to Emily Scarratt who picked another devastating line to run in from 45 metres out. When in need, call for Scaz! She calmly added the conversion, and suddenly England looked safeish at 10-19 ahead.
A moment later, Amelia Harper was brought on for her debut in the most demanding circumstances imaginable, an away game in France, with the crowd baying. But Middleton knows he must keep widening his player-choice.
The game continued at high intensity, neither side able to strike a decisive blow.
Harriet Millar-Mills completed a third return to the colours after a break from international duty of nearly two years. She replaced Poppy Cleall at No 6.
Six minutes from time Jessy Trémoulière knocked her second penalty over and the tension racked up again. (13-19). But the deficit proved too great. England kept knocking moving figures down.
They had to hang on to that vital lead.
Leanne Riley, on for Mo Hunt, had already proved her skills in a parallel situation in the match in San Diego, when the game needed battening down and the ball stuck up jumpers. This is where English discipline and accuracy have proved so valuable. 80 minutes on the clock – a final pass back to Katy Daley-Mclean and the ball finished high in the stand.
The French will rue their fallible handling. They missed out several times when the ball didn’t stick. In a game of the narrowest margins that becomes decisive.
Result: France 13 England 19
Referee: Aimee Barrett-Theron
Player of the Match: Emily Scarratt (again!)
So the Red Roses have completed a sequence of five victories over their nearest rivals and can rejoice. It’s taken them no less than eight years to achieve an away win in the 6N. They and their back-up team can be proud of their achievements.
As for France, the serious questions I proposed at the end of my preview might well re-emerge. The three trickiest ones will be: the inconsistent approach to the 7s/15s split; the part-time professional contract and the constant switching of selections, not least at half-back.
The Other Matches:
Ireland v Scotland
Ireland had to work desperately hard to achieve a home win. They took an early lead through a 3-pointer from Ellen Murphy, the new No 10. Cliodhna Moloney widened the gap, forcing her way past tackles for an excellent first try. Another followed from strong approach work finished off by Sene Naoupu. Ireland were deprived of Moloney who needed an HIA.
It took the Scots 33 minutes to get the ball into Rhona Lloyd’s hands for a run, but she was brought down.
They finally struck back with a first success just before half-time. Suddenly all the chain-links clicked. The ball went through several phases into the Irish 22, then Jade Konkel may have surprised the Irish defence by sending the ball wide to the backs, not to a mate nearby. Lisa Thomson slipped through and was over near the posts.
Beibhinn Parsons gave the hosts some breathing-space with a third try from a breakaway. Scotland drove hard at the Irish line without crossing it, then, as they spread the ball wide, a weakness in their skill-set was plain to see: the backs lined flat, they advanced without huge menace and a midfield pass was picked off with ease by Parsons who galloped the length of the field to remind Philip Doyle of the size of the job he has taken on. So near and yet so far.
Back came the Scots again to post a second try, through Emma Wassell after controlled work by Konkel (18-14)
Scotland, just four points down, were in the driving seat, only five metres out. A decisive try would clinch a vital away win. Their forwards pressed persistently at the line, but they couldn’t finish the job.
Both sides have felt under the cosh in recent times. The Irish will be grateful for the four points; the Scots can feel pleased with a lot of skilful play, but a win was what was needed. At least Doyle will have identified various areas he can work on, but the next opposition wear white shirts.
Referee: Aurélie Groizeleau
Wales v Italy
In the game at the Arms Park Robyn Wilkins struck first with a penalty. Italy were guilty of passing up golden chances, and the TMO turned out to be a major obstruction to their progress. Three times David Grashoff denied them a try during the course of the game.
Melissa Bettoni, the No 2, was brilliantly held up when over the Welsh line, but moments later she was in for a try.
Hannah Jones responded to send Wales into the changing-rooms in good heart.
The second half saw the Italians take command, though they couldn’t romp away to victory.
Sara Barattin, still very much the heartbeat of her team, made a clever break behind an unguarded ruck. When she was hauled down just short of the line by Jasmine Joyce, Maria Magatti was there to go over and put her side in the lead.
Italy, overpowering the Welsh for long periods, got their third reward when Sofia Stefan finished off a move started with forward power.
But the hosts came back to register the last score of the day. They profited from a good position close to the enemy line; Gwenn Crabb caught a clean line-out ball and Kelsey Jones peeled round the front to register a debut try for her nation. It closed the gap to four points (15-19), but that was as good as it got for them.
Kayleigh Powell made an impressive debut at full-back, but unfortunately had to leave the field. The newly formed front row of Gwenllian Pyrs, Kelsey Jones and Cerys Hale (the only old hand) proved a real threat throughout.
Referee: Sara Cox
Player of the Match: Giada Franco – once again! – a great player in the making
France 13 England 19
Ireland 18 Scotland 14
Wales 15 Italy 19
Not a single side reached 20 points!
A combined total of 14 points difference between win and loss is just what the Six Nations needs, if not the shattering disappointment it delivers to the losers.
It’s quite excellent to see three such close finishes. What are the chances of a repeat in the coming rounds? It means that every side scored at least a point.
England averaged 43 caps per player. Middleton was taking few risks in his selections, only perhaps in the front row.
Lise Arricastre celebrated her 70th cap in Pau, after a decade of service to the French cause.
While the men’s match in Paris suffered plenty of rain, players and spectators at the women’s game down south had to withstand a temperature of 27◦.
Giada Franco has frequently been termed the Italian captain; in fact Elisa Giordano still is. Franco stepped in as Italy’s spokesperson at the London launch no doubt for reasons of logistics and language.
It’s a curious feature of this year’s schedule that sides play two consecutive games at home or away. We’ll see whether that brings unwanted advantages.
Coming up next weekend:
France v Italy
Ireland v Wales
Scotland v England