It was the Saturday that the Red Roses were made to roar. As the lead swelled to thirteen, and in the face of a fine French performance, perhaps the best the visitors have produced in a good while, England were staring down the barrel of a first defeat to France in their last seven games, without a home crowd to spur them on. But in their absence, it was England’s bench that brought the noise, turned the momentum and produced a most stunning comeback win.
It is now many months since a sporting event took place in front of a substantial crowd in the United Kingdom, but in the grand concrete structure that is Twickenham, a most capacious space, the 82,000 or so not present were keenly missed. While an England Women’s game might normally draw a more modest assembly, the impact of any crowd can be large.
“It was so noticeable,” reflected Poppy Cleall, impressive throughout the game at number eight. “The crowd we would usually get in here normally is probably 10,000, and in such a big arena people would probably comment that that is not enough, but when we came out in the second half the amount of noise that that crowd would have been making would have really lifted us.
“That is why we love playing here because the atmosphere that they do give us and the fans that do come out and watch us really give us that lift. It was a bit strange to not feed off that energy.”
It was thus left to the players and staff of the two sides to generate their own atmosphere, both on the field and off. Galvanised by a fast start and propelled by the added belief brought by the return of several key figures to the match-day 23, the French bench and coaches box drove their side on as they both seized and asserted their ascendancy through to the hour-mark.
Yet at 60 minutes, an intriguing innovation changed the atmosphere. It was unconventional from Simon Middleton, introducing all eight of his substitutes en masse on the hour mark with some of the England starters appearing to flag. It seemed a bold move, leaving England vulnerable to a late injury and without further impact to add were momentum not wrestled back their way quickly.
However, as Cleall explained after the game, the introduction of the eight bench players added energy, enthusiasm, and plenty of atmosphere in the absence of a home crowd.
“When we saw those subs running towards us they gave us the same sort of lift. The energy that they brought was insane and I’m just glad that we emptied at that moment because it gave us the lift that we needed. I always thought we could come back and win it.”
Chief among those instigators of energy was Natasha Hunt, back in the squad after testing positive for coronavirus, and Marlie Packer. Two of England’s experienced heads, together they added the intensity to drive the Red Roses’ comeback, as much via their voices as their play.
“You’ve got Marlie Packer, she came on and she shouted more than she ran and she drove us round the park, especially with Mo (Hunt) as well coming back from being out for a couple of games,” Cleall continued.
Perhaps this is the extra edge that professionalism has delivered. England have been without plenty of likely starters this autumn, notably influential captain Sarah Hunter and destructive props Hannah Botterman and Sarah Bern. Yet even without them, Middleton had resources to send for, punch to add, particularly up front. England have developed a power game of real superiority, with a flexible back-five in the pack who excel in the carry, and a front-row that make their mark in the loose as much as the tight.
While that has led to some frailties at the set-piece, shown up notably by France in the last two weeks and something to work on ahead of a crucial year, England’s power game allows them to grind a team down and produce the sort of comeback they put together here.
“We have got a lot of young players learning their trade at an accelerated rate, but I think from a strength in depth perspective, we come out of this year way better than we came into it,” Middleton reflected on an unbeaten 2020. “We have got a real clear direction of how we want to play and how we want to develop our game – from that point of view, I think physically we are in great shape.
“We challenged the girls unbelievably over this period. We have gone into games fatigued because we have trained so hard and they have found ways to win.”
However tough this autumn campaign has been, England will have gone eighteen months without a blemish to their record by the time they begin the defence of their Six Nations Grand Slam in the spring. While the World Cup does not come until late September, England will head into 2021 full of confidence and look ready to win back their crown.