It was a match that epitomised the cliché ‘a game of two halves’, as England overcame a thirteen-point deficit at half time to run out 26 – 13 winners against champions France.
The Red Roses started brightly, but a flat pass from Katie McClean was intercepted by France winger Izar, who sprinted from her own 22 metre line to cross for the opening try. And she made another break a few minutes later, slicing through a big hole in midfield after a cute inside ball.
England were looking thoroughly outclassed, the French backline stringing together some lovely passing and making good ground out wide. They came close to scoring two or three times, but England’s defence clung on.
Such was France’s dominance that the Red Roses were struggling even to set a platform, their lineout looking wobbly as they struggled to deliver clean ball off the top to scrum half Natasha Hunt. In the scrum they were repeatedly shoved backwards at a rate of knots by the powerful French forward pack, who on one occasion pushed them off their own ball only a few metres from their line.
Halfway through the first half, yet another French attack led to a penalty right in front of the posts. Le Duff converted despite slipping, a let-off for England as the French had got within three metres of their line. However, the reprieve was short-lived for the Red Roses, as another dominant French scrum saw them win the penalty and kick to the corner. Off the resultant line-out, the French forwards set up a good rolling maul and barrelled over for the try. Le Duff failed to convert, but France led 13 – 0.
England looked a shadow of the team that ran the Silver Ferns close in the Autumn, barely able to get out of their own half or hang onto possession, and were reduced to attempting to contain wave after wave of French attacks.
The only real positive piece of play from England came in the last minute of the half, when centre Emily Scarratt made a nice break and kicked ahead with one to beat, but winger Amy Wilson Hardy knocked the ball on.
The Red Roses left the field at half time having failed to score any points and it looked as though it was going to be a long second half for the women in white. They looked thoroughly outclassed. The French forwards were making metres with ease and absolutely dominating the scrum. Their backs were also playing well, some fluid passing and neat inside balls leading to half breaks which put the England defence under pressure. England really needed to step up in the second half.
And they got off to a much better start after McClean pounced on a loose ball at the lineout and made a half break. England won the penalty at the ruck and Scarratt knocked it over to register the Red Roses’ first points of the game.
France were nearly through for another try a few minutes later, but a fantastic tackle from fullback Danielle Waterman saved England.
The Red Roses were looking a lot better, their ball-carriers making metres and their backs playing with more fluency. A lineout win on the French 22 allowed England to set up the driving maul, before spinning it through the hands to Danielle Waterman out wide, who dummied and ghosted through a gap between two French players to score a lovely try. Scarratt added the extras and suddenly the scores were level at 13 apiece.
For all their formidable form in the first half, the French seemed rattled by this new-look England side, and errors began creeping into their game. They failed to land the kick-off over the 10-metre line and their scrum was exerting less of an influence due to some excellent work by Sarah Hunter, who was clearing the ball away before the French pack could really get a good drive on.
It was as though the teams had swapped jerseys at half time, as another sweeping English attack almost led to another try, the French just managing to shepherd the ball into touch.
Another French error, a knock on deep in their half, saw the Red Roses win the scrum penalty and Emily Scarratt again sent the ball between the posts. England were in front for the first time in the match with only 13 minutes to go.
France were starting to unravel, perhaps due to a lack of fitness, giving away numerous penalties in their own half. After they were penalised for collapsing the scrum, Scarratt stepped up again to stretch England’s lead to six points.
The Red Roses were really fired up, and with three minutes to go they scored another try. Some good build-up play saw the ball come out to Emily Scarratt on the left, who pinned her ears back and ran into space. She passed to winger Amy Wilson Hardy, who side-stepped her opposite number to score. Scarratt converted to put England 13 points ahead.
At the restart, the French no. 22 was yellow-carded for taking out Poppy Cleall in the air, but the game was over a couple of minutes later, the Red Roses having recorded a brilliant comeback win.
England’s poor performance in the first half could perhaps be blamed on rustiness, but they were up against a France team which was firing on all cylinders. Their forwards were extremely powerful, making ground easily and bossing the scrums and rolling mauls, and the Red Roses really struggled to contain them in the first half.
However, the French looked to have tired in the second half as errors crept into their game, and they lost the dominance up front that they had had during the first forty minutes. England certainly looked the fitter side and seemed to really hit their stride, cutting out the errors and building phases nicely, stretching the French defence with some nice passing. The experienced heads of Emily Scarratt, Katie McClean, Marlie Packer and Sarah Hunter also helped, as they put in big second-half performances.
England should rightly be very pleased with the way they played in the final forty minutes, but they will want to perform like that for the whole game against Wales in Cardiff next week to record a second win in the 6 Nations.
POTM: Emily Scarratt – her kicking off the tee was excellent, scoring 16 points, and she ran well with ball in hand, making good metres both in space and in contact. She also had a hand in the second try and was one of a few who stepped up when England needed her to.
England: (0) 26
Try: Waterman, Wilson-Hardy Cons: Scarratt 2 Pens: Scarratt 4
France: (13) 13
Tries: Izar, Mignot Pen: Le Duff