MATCH REPORT: England 25-23 France. A pitched battle in an empty stadium!
Last week England comfortably beat France in Grenoble, so you’d be forgiven for expecting an equally straightforward victory in the return fixture. The ladies in blue had other ideas though and the game was all the more entertaining for it!
Ahead of kick off, the focus was on Katy Daley-Mclean who, on her 116th appearance, took the 3rd spot in England’s all-time appearances chart and as such was the obvious choice to captain the side in the absence of Sarah Hunter.
France came out of the traps running, with a tenacity that put their recent games against the Roses in the shade. It would be the hallmark of the game for them, relentless defence and aggressive attack that I can’t help but assume was the result not only of the loss in Grenoble but excitement that they would face England once again in the world cup too!
Early on Caroline Drouin scuffed a penalty wide of the post – it would be a poor day for kickers on both sides – but her second attempt was true to the mark, giving les bleus the advantage in the 11th minute.
Zoe Harrison rectified matters five minutes later, popping up in the right wing channel to collect a pass from Leanne Riley, she bounded over the line from 15 metres out but was unable to add the extras.
France then regained the momentum, scoring through Emeline Gros before, in the last minutes of the half Cyrielle Banet scooped up the ball well inside her own half and flew the length of the pitch to score. Drouin slotted her kick and France went into half time ten points clear and with the game clearly in their hands.
The second half would see Banet once again coming to our attention, this time for the TMO catching her kicking out at England prop Vickii Cornborough. She went for a ten-minute rest, leaving France under resourced as the Red Roses rolling maul – always a potent weapon – ploughed through the French defensive lines with Lark Davies getting the honours to narrow the scoreline to 10-15.
Drouin once again calmly slotted a conversion on the 50th minute and France started to bring on their bench including the always-exciting Jessy Tremouliere. The French defence withstood wave after wave of England attack and it began to feel like this might have been a game too far for Simon Middleton’s charges.
In a move I’ve never seen before, Middleton emptied his entire bench on the 60th minute – 8 pairs of fresh legs charging into the fray and Marlie Packer screaming her support for her teammates and encouraging them forward.
Cyrielle Banet would atone for her card with a well taken try on the 64th minute but the wholesale changes were forcing a momentum swing toward the white shirts, Poppy Cleall scoring from another rolling maul for her 14th try in a white shirt, before Ellie Kildunne, who had been testing France’s defence all game, finally cut free and dotted down. Emily Scarratt, taking over kicking duties converted and with seven minutes left we were sitting on a 22-23 scoreline.
Wave after wave of English attack crashed into French defensive lines who absorbed the impact and reset. The clock ticked on and it seemed inevitable until, in the dying seconds of the game England secured a penalty…
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. World player of the year Scarratt, face set in grim determination placed the ball on the tee and the empty stadium somehow got even more silent! The kick was true and, with the timer in the red England wrestled the win from their opponent’s hands.
Speaking after the game, Simon Middleton was quick to praise the depth of talent in the England squad. “I think we have grown the squad hugely. In terms of our strength in depth, we have got the best part of 13, 15 international players sat at home injured. High quality international players, but fortunately we have a lot of high-quality players here with us. 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. 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. The game today was almost a game to far for us. Plenty of things to work on. I think the inexperience of some of the younger players showed at times today, just in terms of trying to force the play a little bit.”
Daley-Mclean, reflecting on the win showed faith in her teammates: “I never thought we were out of it. 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 then. It was nail-biting watching it in the stands that last five minutes. I was kind of looking, not looking, that sort of thing.”
Both player and coach were quick to see the benefits of such an exciting game being available to so many viewers via the BBC. Katy, always one to focus on the positives, definitely saw it as a chance to grow the game. “It is fantastic, isn’t it. For us to be on the BBC is massive for the women’s game. Our job is to try and put on a show, and today we definitely did that. Anyone that was switched on for the last half an hour, it is the spectacle of rugby that you want to create, that is competitive, that goes end-to-end and has got a high level skill. That last 20 minutes really showed that.”
“I’d echo that” Middleton added, “I hope people didn’t leave early – I wouldn’t have liked to miss the last five minutes of that game”
15. Ellie Kildunne, 14. Claudia MacDonald, 13. Lagi Tuima, 12. Zoe Harrison, 11. Abby Dow, 10. Katy Daley-Mclean, 9. Leanne Riley; 1. Vickii Cornborough, 2. Lark Davies, 3. Shaunagh Brown, 4. Abbie Ward, 5. Morwenna Talling, 6. Harriet Millar-Mills, 7. Alex Matthews, 8. Poppy Cleall.
16. Amy Cokayne, 17. Ellena Perry, 18. Laura Keates, 19. Sarah Beckett, 20. Marlie Packer, 21. Natasha Hunt, 22. Helena Rowland, 23. Emily Scarratt.
1. Deshaye, 2. Sochat, 3. Bernadou, 4. Ferer, 5. N’Diaye, 6. Mayans, 7. Hermet (c), 8. Gros, 9. Sansus, 10. Drouin, 11. Bertrand, 12. Ulutule, 13. Pignot, 14. Banet, 15. Izar
16. Touye, 17. Traore, 18. Joyeux, 19. Diallo, 20. Menager, 21. Bourdon, 22. Peyronnet, 23. Tremouliere