Another grand slam for England, a fourth consecutive Six Nations title, a 23rd win in a row and a considerable statement that they will take some stopping at this year’s World Cup. Whereas they had previously thrashed their opponents, this was a victory founded on their tireless defence and, fittingly for the side who can fully lay claim to the label, professionalism.
They scored three tries, each from rolling mauls with the tighthead prop Sarah Bern going over twice and Abbie Ward grabbing the other and while there were more moments from France – who were also chasing a clean sweep – that quickened the pulse, England produced the kind of performance that demonstrates why they are significantly ahead of the chasing pack at present. They were devastatingly physical, ruthlessly clinical at the set-piece – Zoe Aldcroft underlining why she is the current world player of the year and making 18 tackles – and gave a masterclass in efficiency, if not entertainment.
For it was not a classic but it was, at least, a competitive match and “the best England side I’ve ever coached”, according to Simon Middleton, do not tend to get too many of those these days.
“I think we knew it could turn out that way. We had a real clear picture in our minds about how we could win the game,” said Middleton. “Not always pretty but very effective. When you get to games like this you want to entertain but you don’t want to be the gallant loser. The players realised how they were going win the game, keep the crowd quiet and win the trophy. This is one of the things we wanted to find out, how resilient we are. Our lineout defence won us the game. We know what we’ve got to do to be classed as a great side but we’re getting there, we’re working towards it.”
Indeed, they had spoken in the buildup about how they wanted a genuine challenge and the boos that rang out as they completed their warm-up served as warning as to what was to come. Accordingly, it was a jittery start by England, a relentless opening from France and, for the first time in the competition, the three-times defending champions were behind.
After just three minutes the France No 8, Romane Ménager, burst through the England defence and under the posts after the hosts were afforded a lineout deep in their opponents’ territory after a knock-on from Zoe Harrison behind her own line.
England’s stage fright continued thereafter with Lydia Thompson fumbling a wayward pass from Helena Rowland but it was the full-back’s expertly executed 50:22 which gave her side their first foray into the France 22. It was England’s first genuine opportunity and one they took, Bern finishing off her first try at the back of a rolling maul.
Bern’s score settled England and, with Aldcroft persistent at disrupting France’s lineout, they began to exert their authority. Two more tries from rolling mauls – the first from Ward, who had won the penalty to give the visitors possession – and another from Bern demonstrated just what a cohesive unit Middleton has built.
France were not without their moments – Chloe Jacquet’s booming left boot kept England’s back-three honest – but the home side’s indiscipline let them down on too many occasions. And when they were able to get territory, more often than not Aldcroft intervened. England were on top at the breakdown too but perhaps it is the way his side dealt with the sustained period of French pressure before half-time that will please Middleton most. Whereas England’s maul had been clinical, France could not find a way through despite repeated attempts.
Again France flew out of the blocks at the start of the second half and they could sense a way back into the match when Harrison was shown a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on. A fine break through the middle from Gabrielle Vernier had England reeling but that France failed to score a point during that 10-minute period only emphasised how resolute the visitors were in defence.
A yellow card for France’s Maëlle Filopon allowed Emily Scarratt to extend England’s lead with a penalty but the hosts went up a gear despite their numerical disadvantage. The replacement Emilie Boulard sparked things off, bursting through the heart of England’s defence and les Bleues kept coming, eventually registering their second try of the match through Annaelle Deshayes. It was fitting reward for their efforts but there was no grandstand finish for France, who, if nothing else, now know precisely the levels they must aspire to. “Ultimately we wanted to move the game on and we’ve done that,” added Middleton.