Gaëlle Hermet, the French captain, was in no doubt: ‘We are privileged to be playing’
All the players involved in this great show were surely of the same mind. With so many games being called off around the world they were the lucky ones who had the chance to go on performing. No other French women were permitted to play nationwide.
England stormed away from the hosts at the start of the second half to make sure of a sixth successive victory over them. Two glorious tries eased the pressure after the French had come back from a shaky start to draw level at 10-10.
This was a high speed game with skills outmatching errors. England applied early pressure forcing the opposition back into defence. Twice they won a penalty advantage, twice they tried a cross-kick, but the ploy is so well-known these days that they were called back.
Within five minutes they had their opening score from a forward drive completed by Amy Cokayne. Emily Scarratt, captaining again, converted. (0-7)
On nine minutes Laure Sansus made another of her big breaks to disturb English defensive patterns, but as happened throughout the game, a French ruck took just long enough to slow the momentum.
The English pack had a distinct weight advantage, and when they won a penalty for collapsing, that was one concern apparently overcome. But no; subsequent scrums revealed the ongoing uncertainties. They were quite capable of rocking the French eight back on their heels, but there was no consistency.
By contrast, the line-outs worked very much in England’s favour. The hookers, Cokayne and later Lark Davies, were spot on, and Abbie Ward’s mastery at disrupting the opposition matched her certainty on her own throw. Hard to credit she was out of the game for eleven months. Her return to such form is either a ringing endorsement for marriage or testimony to her core skills and resilience.
Helena Rowland, invited to start at No 10 for the first time, made a fine impression. She has a wide command of kicks, her passes were secure, and her great individual moment was to come later.
France were penalised several times at the breakdown, where Poppy Cleall had another of her great games. On one occasion she chose to add her weight to a ruck late on; its suddenness caused Sansus at the back to knock on, another individual effort helping to upset French rhythm.
Alex Matthews caught an attacking line-out to start another rumble, but the French defence managed to hold it up.
A low kick to the corner by Caroline Drouin created problems for Abby Dow. On the end of a second drive Gaëlle Hermet crossed under the posts for Drouin to convert. (7-7)
Only four minutes later continued pressure from France let Drouin add a penalty. (10-7)
The game had swung dramatically.
But England had a decisive advantage in the kicking stakes. Not only Scarratt, but Rowland, Zoe Harrison and Ellie Kildunne were all capable of sending the ball into open spaces or deep behind the opposition.
When Emeline Gros allowed herself to fall offside under the referee’s nose, Scarratt added three more points.
Simon Middleton said his piece over the lemons, and his charges took his advice to heart.
Just three minutes in Rowland showed her class with a stunning break through thick traffic; Cokayne was there to carry the ball on at pace, then Matthews paraded her Sevens skills by stepping past the final lines of defence to score. Scarratt converted. (10-17)
This was a game of much kicking, most of it high quality. But a huge punt by Drouin into England’s half was fielded by Harrison and fed infield to Jess Breach. For the first time in quite a while we were able to enjoy her outstanding skills in pace and footwork as she tore through French defences. Another try under the posts. (10-24)
This sequence was strangely parallel to Dow’s great try at Murrayfield. Only here Breach stepped and sped through midfield as if this was a Sevens match.
More massive punts resembled a series of lobs on a huge Centre Court, but in that ball-game Scarratt is the mistress of all she surveys. Her kicks always seemed to find the distant touch or finish an inch short of the French line where defenders had to scramble.
The first English replacement was Morwenna Talling (for Sarah Beckett), rather like Amelia Harper’s appearance at a crucial moment in the previous game in Pau. But this time the French were already beginning to look a shade hang-dog.
They have high skills and high commitment, but they couldn’t rid themselves of the little errors that halt progress.
Once the packs had been largely replaced, English cohesion put them on the front foot again. Scarratt accepted a penalty offer some way out to raise 30 points on a French scoreboard, a great rarity for English eyes.
The French did very well to hold out against a barrage of attacks from bench players desperate to impress the watching management.
But the seriousness of England’s approach was shown in the 79th minute when, offered a penalty right in front, they invited their captain to take the three points. No nonsense of trying out a fancy move on an occasion like this.
Result: France 10 England 33
Player of the Match: Emily Scarratt
This marked a sixth successive cross-Channel win for the Red Roses. As we hunt for reasons, it’s all too easy to mention their professional status. What is equally telling is the sheer quality of the players. Each with her own specialist skills, they have all the necessary equipment to ensure continuity.
The handling was a particular joy. Long French punts demanded good positioning and accurate judgement. Time and again the ball was cleanly taken to allow a prompt counter.
It will be fascinating to see what changes, if any, the management make to the 23 for the return match at Twickenham next week. Apart from players mentioned below a few more are currently injured, short and long-term. Amber Reed, Lydia Thompson and Mo Hunt will be rueing their bad timing if they can’t be considered for that last fling this year.
But the next Six Nations is barely twelve weeks distant – we hope.
World Cup Prospects
The long-term question about World Cup selections becomes even more difficult. If we assume that all the Sevens players will be able to compete, then we are looking at a desperately tricky set of choices. There are only 30 places on offer. Apart from the 28 contracted players from last season, Middleton has made several additions to training squads.
Over the last two games Meg Jones, Kildunne, Matthews and Rowland have all made positive statements; Harriet Millar-Mills and Laura Keates have made welcome returns so has Lagi Tuima, though not in a white shirt yet. Holly Aitchison, an outstanding Sevens performer, joined in the training sessions but returned to Sarries for the derby against Wasps.
And this was a very rare game in which neither Sarah Hunter nor Katy Daley-Mclean were listed. Hunter appeared in the BBC studio; KD-M ‘rested’ by returning to her other great love, Sale Sharks, in the beastliest weather imaginable.
The French management made nine changes to the side that drew against Scotland. You could call it giving everyone a chance or a slap in the face.
Once more Annick Hayraud hinted at the lack of time together in preparation for a demanding match. It showed in the occasional mistake in handling, line-out accuracy and observance of the offside line.
It’s impossible to know how good the French side could be if it operated on the same terms as the English. But for sure, a 0-6 deficit would be highly unlikely.
This win hoists the Red Roses above the Black Ferns into first place. Their previous top spot lasted only a few weeks in 2017. Will the Ferns be concerned? No. They can answer that they always come out on top when it comes to the nitty gritty.
It’s up to England to prove that that painful sequence can be broken.
Most unusually the appointed referee, Joy Neville, sustained an injury pre-match and was replaced by Aurélie Groizeleau, who had another excellent game.
15 Shannon Izar
14 Coralie Bertrand
13 Carla Neisen
12 Maëlle Filopon
11 Marine Ménager
10 Caroline Drouin
9 Laure Sansus
1 Anaëlle Deshayes
2 Agathe Sochat
3 Rose Bernadou
4 Céline Ferer
5 Coumba Diallo
6 Marjorie Mayans
7 Gaëlle Hermet (captain)
8 Emeline Gros
16 Laure Touyé
17 Ryka Aït Lahbib
18 Chloe Pelle
19 Manae Feleu
20 Fiona Lecat
21 Pauline Bourdon
22 Gabrielle Vernier
23 Elise Pignot
15. Ellie Kildunne
14. Jess Breach
13. Emily Scarratt
12. Zoe Harrison
11. Abby Dow
10. Helena Rowland
9. Leanne Riley
1. Vickii Cornborough
2. Amy Cokayne
3. Shaunagh Brown
4. Abbie Ward
5. Poppy Cleall
6. Alex Matthews
7. Marlie Packer
8. Sarah Beckett
16. Lark Davies
17. Detysha Harper
18. Laura Keates
19. Morwenna Talling
20. Harriet Millar-Mills
21. Claudia MacDonald
22. Kelly Smith
23. Megan Jones