Red Roses hold off France in bruising Rugby World Cup showdown | Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021
England are still unbeaten in 27 Tests and their World Cup bandwagon continues to roll. But here was a timely reminder that margins at the top level can be narrow and that nothing comes easy on the biggest stage. While France may have been beaten, their defensive resistance was consistently impressive and this was never anything less than a fierce contest.
The Red Roses had their normal clutch of heroines, with Marlie Packer a constant thorn in French sides and Emily Scarratt scoring all her side’s points, including the 24th-minute try that gave England some much-needed breathing space. For all their line-out slickness and occasional scrum pressure, though, Simon Middleton’s side will have to vary their game a little more if they are to regain the world title they last won in 2014.
Into the final 10 minutes France were still within a score and ruffling the composure of an England side who normally have opponents on toast long before the end. It is a rare day indeed when those two totems of the women’s game, Scarratt and Sarah Hunter, both drop balls they would normally catch in their sleep, but it was merely a symptom of the defensive pressure the French managed to exert.
There were even a couple of massed scuffles to reinforce the intensity of the occasion and Hunter, who has now equalled Rocky Clark’s all-time record of 137 caps for her country, acknowledged her team had been in a genuine battle. “It was attritional out there,” confirmed the England captain. “Hopefully it was a great showcase for women’s rugby.”
An absorbing, if occasionally stop-start, game might have been even trickier for England had France clung on to the ball at a couple of key moments and not lost their two best players, Laure Sansus and Romane Ménager, inside the first quarter. The scrum-half Sansus was the Six Nations player of the tournament this year, but only 12 minutes had elapsed when she was being driven away on a medical cart with a leg injury, her night already over.
Worse was to follow for the French when the outstanding No 8 Ménager went to tackle Zoe Aldcroft and was knocked out cold. Initially the referee Joy Neville thought she was deliberately lying on the wrong side of the ruck, but it swiftly became apparent she was unconscious , an unsettling sight at any time let alone a contest of this magnitude.
It was a relief to see her sitting up but her tearful farewell, as her worried twin sister Marine looked on from the bench, was a reminder the women’s game can be as unforgiving as the men’s version. Watching England’s forwards thundering into contact was to also be impressed by France’s resolve, with 81 tackles required by the team in blue inside the first 25 minutes alone.
England were also not having things their own way at the breakdown but the pressure always appeared likely to tell eventually. Instead of opting for their usual driving maul, the Red Roses opted to probe a little wider and after the busy Alex Matthews had made a significant dent, Zoe Harrison deftly put the determined Scarratt over for the game’s opening try after 24 minutes.
The centre’s conversion made it 7-0 but France were not going away. Ellie Kildunne was the victim of one particularly shuddering tackle by Gabrielle Vernier, who drove her opponent powerfully backwards in midfield. Neville awarded a penalty because Kildunne’s feet ended up fractionally above the horizontal but a point had been forcibly made.
It was no surprise, then, when England opted for the sticks just before half-time to bank three easy points rather than opting for the corner and another driven line-out. A 10-0 half-time advantage may not have been huge but in the context of a rugged encounter it felt handy.
With the pre-game breeze having now died down, though, England would have expected their dynamic bench to have had more of an impact than they did. Another flurry of French penalties did enable Scarratt to slot over her second penalty, but it was no less than France deserved when a cross kick from fly-half Caroline Drouin found the athletic winger Joanna Grisez, who popped the ball up for Gaëlle Hermet to score.
Maybe on another day, with more possession, France would have caused even more attacking problems, leaving Middleton and his assistants with plenty to ponder before their final pool fixture against South Africa next weekend. “I take my hat off to France, they’re so tough,” said the head coach. “It turned into an absolute arm wrestle but we showed great composure at the end. There was definitely a bit missing in terms of our finishing and that’s why we ended up in such a close encounter. We ‘ve got to be better at putting those away.”