France 10 England 20
On the same day that their football counterparts made history at a sold-out Wembley, 560 miles away, in the Auvergne region of central-southern France, 13,700 came out in force for another edition of Le Crunch.
In the intimidating bowels of the Stade Marcel-Michelin, England ground out their first victory on French soil since 2012, a testament to their evolving professional XVs status.
Yet at times the fine line between professionalism and France’s semi-pro outfit – known simply in these parts as ‘les rugbywomen’ – was stripped down to a thread. Had it not been for some resolute defending in the last 10 minutes – and had Jessy Tremouliere not squandered a straightforward penalty early on – the outcome might have been different.
“When you’re defending against your try line, it’s not ultimately about how fit you are, it’s a mindset thing when you’ve got your backs against the wall and you’ve got wave after wave of French attack coming,” said England captain Sarah Hunter. “Unfortunately, in the last few years when we’ve come to France, it’s been those dying moments when you concede those points and concede the match. I think that’s actually more of a shift than the fact that now we’ve got professional contracts.”
Spurred on by a 15-strong fanfare nestled within a sea of tricolours, the hosts enjoyed an electric start. Tempers frayed when Sarah Bern was judged not to have cynically blocked Pauline Bourdon after the scrum-half was impeded in chasing her chip over the Red Roses’ defence. It was only after Emily Scrarratt had cancelled out Tremouliere’s second successful penalty that the stadium announcer awkwardly reminded the crowd to respect the kicker. Less than a week ago, Scarratt had made the 12,000-mile trip to Tokyo to be crowned the world’s best player.
After a jagged start, England unleashed the most feared weapon in their arsenal – the driving maul. It was the visitors’ talismanic captain Sarah Hunter who orchestrated the big push before dotting down. “It’s an area of the game where it’s so critical,” said Simon Middleton, England’s head coach. “It’s an unfancied part of the game, but it’s effective. I’m not giving any secrets away, the driving line-out is a massive part. It’s great to see it progressing and it was a massive part of our win.”
It was this all-important tactic that jolted the Red Roses into life as France suffered a lapse in concentration. Within minutes of the restart, Hunter crashed over again.
On paper, England had the edge over Les Bleues, many of whom were bumped up to semi-professional XVs contracts by the French Rugby Federation this time last year. When Camille Boudaud scorched over on the hour mark, after Marlie Packer was shown yellow for offside, few in the Stade Marcel-Michelin might have known that Boudaud tops up her non-rugby hours as an occupational therapist, but this is the reality for the bulk of Annick Hayraud’s bullish side.
Tremouliere’s conversion put the hosts back in contention but France, who had somehow found themselves 14 points down at the break despite showing initial flair, were too often frustrated by a wayward pass that would trickle metres back.
“At times today we lacked a little bit of intelligence,” Haynaud told reporters. “We’re a young side, if you work out the number of caps, there’s some three hundred caps difference. But we’re learning at every opportunity.”
The hosts pressed to close the deficit, but an infringement at the breakdown allowed Scarratt to round off a perfect week by slotting through the uprights.
England: McKenna; Dow, Scarratt, Harrison, Breach; Daley-Mclean, Riley; Botterman, Davies, Bern, Aldcroft, Scott, Beckett, Packer, Hunter.
Replacements: Kerr, Perry, Brown, Cleall, Fleetwood, Hunt, Scott, Thompson
France: Tremouliere; Boujard, Boudaud, Vernier, Menager; Drouin, Bourdon; Deshayes, Sochat, Joyeux; Corson, N’Diaye; Mayans, Hermet, Menager.
Replacements: Thomas, Traore, Pelle, Ferer, Annery, Sansus, Peyronnet, Jason