If ever there was an occasion for a performance like this, then this was it for England. Again on the BBC, at the home of English rugby and against a side they will encounter in the group stages at next year’s World Cup, the Red Roses produced a magnificent comeback to stun familiar foes France in a fine showcase of women’s rugby.
This was also precisely the sort of game that the Red Roses needed. After pulling away from the French so magnificently in Grenoble a week ago, there were concerns that Simon Middleton’s side, whose development has been accelerated by professionalism and the improvement in the standard of domestic rugby, were growing at such a rate that they were now beyond the reach of their closest Six Nations rival.
It was not an inaccurate conclusion to draw. The win in Grenoble was a sizeable triumph in France, where the home side are usually so strong, and England had won six on the bounce against the French, with the gap appearing to widen.
So why was this a problem? Well it isn’t, necessarily, certainly not for England’s players, who have grown into a great side. However, it could have major ramifications come crunch time at next year’s World Cup. With a dearth of competitive games in the build-up to the tournament, how England’s squad react and confront a close game in the final twenty minutes against a high quality side, particularly reigning champions and hosts New Zealand, could have been an unknown.
It was a point that head coach Middleton made at full-time.
“It was a great French performance, particularly first half,” Middleton said after his side’s 25-23 victory. “You want those challenges, don’t you? You work things out. You have to problem solve.
“What we wanted more than anything out of these games, we wanted to win obviously, but we wanted to learn things. We have learned an awful lot. The big lesson for the squad is we can win from anywhere, if they stay with it.”
They certainly had to stay with it. Particularly in the first half at Twickenham, France bared their teeth. With Safi N’Diaye totemic in the heart of the French pack on her return to the side, Laure Sansus and Caroline Drouin creative and incisive in the halves and Cyrielle Banet and Shannon Izar adding the stardust out wide, France were comfortably the better side through to the hour mark.
With Leanne Riley and Katy Daley-McLean hassled and harried, England struggled for accuracy and fluency in attack. Defensively, the Red Roses were dragged hither and thither, too narrow too often and allowing the French back three to exploit spaces in the wider confines, as Banet and Izar did to such devastating effect.
England, however, adjusted, as all great sides do. With the lead growing, Middleton was left with little choice but to go to his bench, and he did so unconventionally, sending for all eight at once on the hour mark, including introducing Emily Scarratt at outside centre and emerging star Helena Rowland for Daley-McLean at ten.
Substituting in such a manner was not the plan, Middleton confirmed after the game, but instead a reflection of the story of the game.
“If we could have let it roll on longer, then we would have let it roll on longer. But ultimately, we don’t want to lose. You have to give yourself the best chance of winning and probably another two or three minutes it would have been too late for us.”
The substitutions worked. Ellena Perry, Amy Cokayne and Laura Keates added real thrust in the front row, both in the loose as carriers and solidifying a wobbly scrum. The ball-playing talents of Scarratt and Rowland, team-mates at Loughborough, enabled England to get the ball wide when opportunities arose, while their sharp tactical brains and precise kicking games enabled England to play in the right areas.
“I never thought we were out of it,” Daley-McLean reflected on the day she became her country’s third most capped international outright. “It could have been a longer road back, but probably because we responded so quickly that gave us the opportunity to go and win it.
“The girls were really savvy in what they played. We went to the set-piece, we played high up in their territory, which then gives you that opportunity because France are under pressure.”
And the pressure told. It was a virtually faultless final ten minutes from England, first Poppy Cleall powering over after shepherding a maul to the line, then Ellie Kildunne bursting out of a tackle to bring England to within a point. When referee Hollie Davidson spotted a French infringement at a ruck in front of the posts, there was little doubt that Scarratt would find the mark from the tee and secure England a most hard-fought and valuable of victories to conclude an unbeaten year.
“Wins like that, you can’t buy them,” Middleton concluded. “They galvanise you as a squad, as a group. You can do as much team building off-the-field, but wins like that when you dig in together, they are the ones that define you as a group.”
As England look ahead to Rugby World Cup 2021, then, this is a performance that they can take plenty from, and come the knockout stages in New Zealand, England will be all the better for it.