Once again England needed all the 80 minutes to pull clear of an outstanding French side and deny them a deserved victory.
For most of the game France were the better team, strong in the pack and fluent out behind. An early scrum jolted England backwards; a clean line-out finished with an unusual knock-on from Leanne Riley. Caroline Drouin made up for an early miss to put her side in front. (0-3).
An England attack saw another bounce pass create trouble for defenders. It left Zoe Harrison clear on the right to go over. She couldn’t convert from that wide. (5-3)
Once more there was a lot of tactical kicking from both sides, but France moved the ball through hands with greater facility.
On 22 minutes Emeline Gros exploited a blind-side move to score, as England found themselves short-staffed. (5-8)
Shaunagh Brown figured twice in attractive moves. First a front peel from a line-out was eventually halted. Then a drive to the line finished with a ‘held-up’ decision from Hollie Davidson.
A moment later a Daley-Mclean kick to deep inside the French 22 led to a great counter. Shannon Izar ran a long right diagonal, found support, and after a lovely passage of play Cyrielle Banet went over on the far right. This end-to-end try was nearly in the same bracket as the greatest of all Twickenham tries, scored by Philippe Saint-André in 1991 – from behind the French line.
Half-time: England 5 France 15
This was just the sort of challenge Simon Middleton wanted his team to face, if not the scoreline. He had deliberately given his less experienced players a leading role. Could they come back from a 10-point deficit?
For the following 40 minutes the answer was No. Three years ago the Red Roses turned a game around from 0-13 to run out worthy winners 26-13. But here they found unlocking the door intensely difficult. Small errors continued. The line-out failed to produce the consistent possession we have grown used to.
And strangely, the ball rarely went wide after strong forward pressure.
Twice in the game the pack strung endless phases together, ten, twenty, thirty. But where was the release to the outside backs? On occasion, the backs looked more like the Extra-Bs in the lack of alignment for a telling blow. Passes were mostly of the flat variety; the deep passes that have brought so much penetration noticeably absent.
Lark Davies figured twice in England’s attempt at a comeback. She fired a pinpoint line-out throw to the back, then finished off a drive over the line. (10-15) Harrison’s kick pranged back off the left post. But within minutes France wisely opted for another pot at goal which Drouin accepted. (10-18)
France were denied Banet’s presence for ten minutes after she was pinged for using a boot on Cornborough’s shoulder as she was held on the ground. She returned along with Romane Ménager who was making a welcome appearance after concussion. With Jessy Trémoulière also coming on, England were going to find it even harder to break down the French defence. Their line-speed throughout was exemplary; they were back to the most impressive form.
When Middleton summoned his entire bench onto the field in one fell swoop, you knew what he thought about things. He had the warning of what happened to France in Glasgow a few weeks earlier, when they paid for introducing all their reserves too soon. But now we had such gold-plated players as Cokayne, Scarratt and Packer to resolve the issue. And youngsters like El Perry, Sarah Beckett and Helena Rowland would really have to produce the goods.
The immediate result? A glorious try by Banet on the far right, on the end of another dazzling move. (10-23)
Surely this was France’s day. After six successive losses now they were mastering the stadium and the opposition.
Trémoulière dithered in deep defence and flung a wild pass out that hit grass. Who better to say thank you than Poppy Cleall who had another immense game? Harrison missed another conversion. (15-23)
On 72 minutes Ellie Kildunne showed her range of skills by riding a sequence of tackles to reappear on the far side and drive in behind the line for another remarkable try. Scarratt, now captain in Daley-Mclean’s place, decided she would convert. (22-23)
There now followed one of those protracted sequences of play that make rugby so edge-of-the-seat. England indulged in the last of their multi-phase shows. Fascinatingly they seemed quite unable to finish the job with a clean-cut move out wide. The play was marooned in or near France’s red zone, but their defence remained brave and obstinate.
The clock went red. The game went on. Finally England’s prayers were answered when Davidson judged that Agathe Sochat was preventing fair release as she lay trapped under a mass of bodies.
Could Scarratt possibly miss from in front? No.
Referee: Hollie Davidson (SRU)
ARs: Sara Cox (RFU) and Nikki O’Donnell (RFU)
TMO: Claire Hodnett (RFU)
We wuz robbed?
This was the third time in eighteen months that England have scraped home by two points against the French.
The game took on extra significance – as if it needed it – since the World Cup pool draw had taken place in Auckland midweek, bringing the sides together yet again.
Never has a run of seven successive victories looked so unconvincing. France were reborn for this match; England laboured for long stretches. Their set-scrum came under huge pressure. The line-out fell some way short of 100% reliability. The familiar fluency of back-play was largely missing. The crucial decisions didn’t favour the visitors.
Middleton had deliberately thrown down the gauntlet to players who are widely considered to be the back-up force. In the end it needed the tried and trusted to ensure the tightest victory imaginable.
We now have the 2021 Six Nations to look forward to. Middleton may go on checking the wider squad, but he will want to look at different opponents for the pre-World Cup internationals planned for later. France, their pool opponents, really cannot figure. That leaves very few sides of sufficient quality to provide the challenge needed. Canada come to mind, but their union is not flushed with cash.