The bare facts are a big deal in themselves. England are the Six Nations grand slam champions and sealed the deal with a thunderous first-half performance their players will remember with pride and plenty of satisfaction. From a pure rugby perspective the game fully justified its high-profile billing, assisted by a stirring French renaissance in the final half hour.
But as you gazed around the buzzing stadium and listened to the ear-splitting roars of the excited congregation there could be no missing the wider significance of this occasion. Never before has a bigger crowd attended a game of women’s rugby and from every conceivable point of view it felt like another huge tipping point for female sport generally.
You could sense it on the trains to Twickenham and in the queues of bright-eyed schoolgirls snaking up the road to the ground. Not only was it clear that many were first-time visitors, but the vibe was entirely different too. When they tot up the matchday takings they will find alcohol sales were appreciably down, but less corporate and less blokeish could just be a blueprint the Rugby Football Union should consider following across the board.
Better still, perhaps, was that this “new normal” felt so natural, as if it should have happened years ago had anyone bothered to arrange it. Credit clearly needs to go to those at the modern forefront of the women’s rugby revolution, but this, in many ways, was a day to applaud all those pioneers who paved the way in front of a handful of spectators for decades with barely a shred of public recognition.
It added up to an afternoon of such sun-soaked resonance that even the half-time show by the Sugababes – a popular music combo, m’lud – had to settle for second billing behind the percussive power of the Red Roses pack and the excitement of a record 58,498 crowd for whom the rugby was clearly hitting the spot.
France were strong at the start and increasingly fluent towards the end, scoring 33 points in a spirited second-half comeback, but this was still very much an English rugby day to savour.
It was certainly a contrast to the men’s Six Nations game between these two nations, when Les Bleus rattled up a half-century.
The Red Roses did have to weather a period of early pressure but once they finally got hold of the ball in the second quarter they were beyond relentless. It helped that France had two players sent to the sin-bin but the hosts’ 33-0 interval lead underlined why the Red Roses have become all but unbeatable in Europe in recent times.
While England will forever regret their agonising late defeat by the Black Ferns in the World Cup final in Auckland last November, it has clearly focused a few minds and a clear desire to give their departing head coach, Simon Middleton, a good send-off was evident in a devastating 23-minute period towards the end of the first half when they scored five unanswered tries.
The first two, in particular, demonstrated that this England side do not merely ask unanswerable questions at close quarters. Give Abby Dow half a yard, as Ellie Kildunne did wide on the right after 17 minutes, and the rapid winger will burn off anyone in the world. Similarly, there is no question Tatyana Heard adds direction and strength to England’s midfield and the centre’s delightful inside offload duly allowed the outstanding Marlie Packer to weave over next to the posts for her seventh try of the tournament.
Even before they lost their fly-half, Jessy Trémoulière, to the sin-bin for a deliberate knockdown France were wobbling. The unselfish Alex Matthews crashed unstoppably over and a penalty try was then awarded when the prop Rose Bernadou made a desperate try-saving tackle from a clear offside position.
With France down to 13 players, it was no surprise when the ever-influential Zoe Aldcroft forced her way over with Helena Rowland further extending the huge home advantage.
Perhaps it was inevitable England would take their foot momentarily off the gas. And that France, unbeaten coming into the game, would make an impact. The full-back Émilie Boulard went over on the left and the nimble inside-centre Gabrielle Vernier also helped to give France some much-needed respectability before Charlotte Escudero, Émeline Gros and Cyrielle Banet added further tries.
Overall, though, the Red Roses have seldom been in such rude health. Maybe there is an inherent problem there for the women’s Six Nations to worry about down the track, because England have blown away almost everything in their path. This is their fifth Six Nations title in a row and by the time the 2025 World Cup kicks off on English soil it is probable they will have clinched a couple more.
The aim over the next two years is to give more opportunity to some of the English game’s rising stars. Sadia Kabeya was player of the match here and in Maud Muir, Helena Rowland, Connie Powell and Hannah Botterman, the Red Roses have players with at least a couple more World Cups in them. On this evidence, too, Packer will be in no mood to hang up her boots any time soon.
Whoever succeeds Middleton will be inheriting a seriously powerful squad at an auspicious moment in history. In the short-term, though, the heroines in white have another Six Nations grand slam and, for the women’s game as a whole, the sky is now the limit.