Ribcages shook as the bassline dropped. Boom. Boom. Boom. The vibrations matched the march of the teams coming out. Fireworks blasted red and white into the sky and Taylor Swift’s familiar voice sang: “Are you ready for it?” The world record crowd definitely were and it is a good job Twickenham does not have a roof or it would need repairing as these teams are used to breaking the glass ceiling.
England rugby’s reputation needed some patching at their home, given that the last time a team frequented this grass the men were booed off after being destroyed by France in March. If you looked hard enough the cracks in the concrete were still evident, the fortress crumbling at the seams.
Seven weeks to the day and Twickenham was hosting England v France again but this time it was not only the pyrotechnics bringing the fire with the hosts, and particularly their captain, Marlie Packer, lighting up the pitch in their grand-slam winning match.
Packer is relatively new to the job. She captained the team for the first time against South Africa at the World Cup last October, but she now embodies the role as if she has had it for years. The foundations of a team are sometimes shaken when leadership changes, but that has not been a worry for England. Sarah Hunter, England’s all-time appearance record holder, retired after the Red Roses’ opening match in this year’s tournament and left huge boots to fill. The transition to Packer, though, has been seamless and it is not only her leadership qualities that have had her grabbing attention.
She led the defence as the ocean blue of French shirts barraged England early on, with the player of the match, Sadia Kabeya, and Hannah Botterman among those saving the Red Roses. Packer turned the ball over and it proved to be the difference after the French revolution in the second half. If France had scored in the early stages would they have gone on to win? An eventuality never to be known thanks to the white-wall defence.
The flash of the No 7 over the tryline is almost expected when England play and Packer ensured it happened again as she weaved her way to the line in the 25th minute. It was her seventh of the championship, making her the first forward since 2020 to win the Women’s Six Nations top try-scorer award (the England backrow Poppy Cleall jointly held the title three years ago).
Packer’s prowess was evident with her try celebration – she jumped up with her fists clenched and roared. Her territorial cry seemed to shake France, so much so that Packer was belted into submission off the ball. The crowd collectively held their breath as she took a knee after the hit. They had seen Packer go down and stay down against Ireland but this time a deafening cheer rippled around the ground as she rose to her feet.
The resulting penalty handed England a third try, and as the Sugababes took to the stage at half-time the Red Roses were pushing all the right buttons to secure their fifth successive Women’s Six Nations title.
Packer’s engine seemed to stall as the France comeback began, giving away needless penalties, and she could not find as good a footing in the second half in her performance but her leadership was soon revving. England looked disheartened, hands on heads scattered along the tryline, and it was the captain gesturing and shouting at them to huddle. The team talk was needed as England tried to hold on, despite failing the defensive questions they passed in the first half.
In the end it felt as though England had been saved from a historic revival. The Red Roses’ grip on their grand slam started to slip with the one hand they secured in the first half falling to just their little finger in the dying minutes. But just as the circulation was about to cut off their title hopes, the clock ticked red.
There was also a poetic musical bookend to the match: after Swift had begun proceedings, Harry Styles closed them. Much like those exes, I doubt there was any love lost between England and France. Styles’s hit Golden was the perfect choice as Packer opened her trophy account as skipper at the same time as the head coach, Simon Middleton, closed his.
The new reign in England’s captaincy has got off to a flying start. The next test to pass will be for whoever takes over from Middleton with the World Cup in 2025 on the horizon.