Source: England Rugby

The Red Roses prove their Dominance

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France v England

Result: France 21 England 42
Player of the Match: Alex Matthews

England won in Bordeaux far more decisively than in Bayonne two years ago. That helped the John Mitchell disciples, led vigorously by Maggie Alphonsi, to underline the improvements that have taken place since the change in head-coachship.

But a salient fact was largely overlooked. In yesterday’s tussle the forwards scored all the tries bar one. And the one was offered to Meg Jones by an unwise reaction of Emilie Boulard in deep defence.

Instead of clearing her lines pronto, she tried to run the ball back, swung an offload in the tackle, only to find Jones on the receiving end.

For the rest, the best back-three partnership in the business was kept noticeably quiet (zero tries).

That was demonstrated near the end: a nice move saw Ellie Kildunne advance for the kill in front of the posts, only to be met by a triple tackle. The ball was worked back for Connie Powell to send an educated pass to Alex Matthews, who, a decade after appearing in a World Cup final, had the fizz to run through untouched.

Blow-by-blow

This was another in the wonderful series of battles between the top two sides in Europe. The only surprise was the one-way nature of the previous twelve encounters. The quality of the play was enough to forget the wet conditions. At times, the rain teemed down.

The Red Rose pack won the opening skirmish: the scrum lurched round for the referee to award them a penalty. Holly Aitchison duly set the opposition back on their 22. A first dazzling backs move involving Abby Dow and Jess Breach was held; the French had done their homework.

But the forwards set up a series of very deliberate drives, Sadia Kabeya to the fore. The outcome was a final thrust over the line by Maud Muir.

Following Brian Moore’s stern dictum about line-outs – ‘Keep it simple!’ – it had started with a short throw from Amy Cokayne. But she was to follow this one with a masterly series of throws, especially to the back of the line, which served to emphasise one ongoing difference between England’s hookers and the rest.

Pauline Bourdon-Sansus was a constant threat as usual, but an early thrust was spoiled by a kick that went straight out. We had the rare sight of Breach clearing well with her boot, testimony to Lou Meadows’ insistence that every back should have every skill with the boot. The winger’s defensive qualities were to be tested later.

On twelve minutes England had their second through Matthews. Tatyana Heard, such a vital cog in the England wheel, did well to keep the ball alive. 0-14

A later sequence was a portent of what was to follow. The French pack won a midfield scrum, and the backs advanced menacingly. Was it inevitable that the move ended in a knock-on? That had been the pattern again and again in recent crunches. Aitchison cleared to the English 22.

Now the crowd could cheer. A lovely French move saw the ball pop out to Gabrielle Vernier who had little trouble creating a gap and running through. 7-14

It was a surprise seeing Vernier, that prize centre, actually drop a pass, but the English scrum was coming under real pressure. The word ‘scramble’ hadn’t fitted them this series till now. Luckily they had Kabeya on their side; she restored possession and Aitchison kicked the ball deep.

Now came that unfortunate error by Boulard. The joy the Red Roses expressed revealed the tensions running through them. 7-21

A fallible area of the English game was claiming French drop-outs. A first error led to the second home try. More magical handling put the ball in Marine Ménager’s hands. The way she went past Breach made you wonder whether Claudia Macdonald might have managed to touch her, with a finger-nail at least.

It’s been a delight to see the younger sister advance from being very much the Number Two in the partnership to Romane’s equal. And she’s been installed as the vice-captain.

That brought her team right back into the game (14-21), and alarm-bells could be heard clanging around English clubhouses.

England reverted to their close accurate passing and driving, till a French hand intervened near the home 5-metre line. At the ensuing line-out Cokayne threw another long ball to the back. By the end of the drive Cogger-Orr couldn’t tell whether the ball had been legally grounded on the line. The TMO took an earnest look and decided ‘Yes!’ The crowd erupted in boos. That was the bonus point gained on the half-hour.

Sadly for les Bleues, the move had started with a simple dropped catch by Anne-Cécile Ciofani. Once more we could ask how successful the switch is from 7s to 15s.

More boos as a French score was written off; the TMO spotted an earlier off-side by PB-S. Once again Aitchison could clear to safety.

England turned up the pressure. In the eight minutes to the break they scored two tries, to Marlie Packer and Cokayne. That should have put them out of reach, but we’d thought that in 2023.

Half-time 14-35

Mitchell had insisted he wanted his charges playing on the edge. Result: they conceded one single penalty in 40 minutes of intense combat.

The second half turned into a much patchier affair. The French were desperate to make amends, the English not to fall into the careless habits of last year. But just as at Twickenham they contrived only one more score.

There were memorable moments, not least when Cokayne launched one of her fly-half kicks deep into French territory. Boulard’s return just managed to reach the England half.

The crowd’s temper wasn’t helped when the referee halted a tap-and-go by PB-S; she’d spotted Morwenna Talling lying protrate on the wet turf.

Now the game took a sudden turn against the French. The TMO intervened to invite Cogger-Orr to inspect a tackle on Talling by Assia Khalfaoui. The outcome was a yellow card, and much worse, the dreaded crossed arms, indicating a bunker review. A few minutes later Cogger-Orr called the two captains together to report a verdict of RED, so France would play the rest of the game with 14. The camera was insensitive enough to offer us a lingering close-up of Khalfaoui in tears. Why do TV producers do it?

Their last success came on 69 minutes. A powerful move led by Vernier and Charlotte Escudero offered the younger Ménager a second run down the wing and behind the posts.

Arguments and counter-arguments

So much for all the carping comments about England’s lack of discipline and lack of place-kicking ability. In all those arguments people forgot that fortunes may fall either way. What is even more illuminating is that England, even with two such admired champions of the game as Abbie Ward and Emily Scarratt now appearing, achieved just one paltry score in the remaining 36 minutes. Aitchison managed only six conversions out of six, if you get my meaning.

That sixth try, described above, characterised England’s game. They finished much the stronger, and the world is left wondering who can beat them.

If we are allowed to set aside all the derisive remarks about the life of cosseted luxury the Red Roses lead, we might suggest the squad contains players of the highest ability. And competition for places remains as keen as ever.

Teams:

France
15 Emilie Boulard 14 Anne-Cécile Ciofani 13 Nassira Konde 12 Gabrielle Vernier 11 Marine Ménager 10 Lina Queyroi 9 Pauline Bourdon-Sansus 1 Annaëlle Deshaye 2 Agathe Sochat 3 Assia Khalfaoui 4 Manae Feleu (captain) 5 Madoussou Fall 6 Charlotte Escudero 7 Gaëlle Hermet 8 Romane Ménager

16 Elisa Riffonneau 17 Ambre Mwayembe 18 Clara Joyeux 19 Emeline Gros 20 Teani Feleu 21 Alex Chambon 22 Anne-Cécile Ciofani 23 Chloë Jacquet

Note: Joanna Grisez was a late minute withdrawal at 14. Axelle Berthoumieu came in on to the bench.

England
15 Ellie Kildunne 14 Abby Dow 13 Meg Jones 12 Tatyana Heard 11 Jess Breach 10 Holly Aitchison 9 Mo Hunt 1 Hannah Botterman 2 Amy Cokayne 3 Maud Muir 4 Zoe Aldcroft 5 Morwenna Talling Zoe Aldcroft 6 Sadia Kabeya 7 Marlie Packer (captain) Sadia Kabeya 8 Alex Matthews

16 Connie Powell 17 Mackenzie Carson 18 Kelsey Clifford 19 Abbie Ward 20 Maddie Feaunati 21 Lucy Packer 22 Emily Scarratt 23 Sydney Gregson

Officials:
Referee: Maggie Cogger-Orr (NZR)
ARs: Clara Munarini (FIR) and Maria Latos (DRB) TMO: Andrew Mcmenemy (SRU)

Final Table             W      L      Pts

England                   5        0        28
France                      4       1          19
Ireland                     2        3        10
Scotland                  2        3          9
Italy                          1        4          7
Wales                       1        4          5

Memo: a Grand Slam winner is given three extra bonus points

Afterthoughts

The French couldn’t help admitting that the English had the Indian sign on them. But the call went out: ‘Aux Armes, Citoyannes!’

Mitchell chose the same English back-line for the fourth time. Recent matches had posted a warning to England:

2023: England 38-33 France (h-t: 33-0!)
2022: France 7-13 England (nerves shattered)
2022: France 12-24 England (a cakewalk compared to the rest)
2021: France 15-17 England (lights out after 62 minutes = game England by 2 minutes!)
2021: England 10-6 France (behind-the-sofa-time)
2020: England 25-23 France (final kick in the 99th minute?)

It’s not often you find the organisers encouraging you to come to the ground by bike. ‘Plenty of bike stands!’

In some ways this game was like the infamous 2022 World Cup final. In both the balance was upset by a red card, yet the deprived team gave the full fifteen a lot to think about. They were still capable of scoring outstanding tries.

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