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 demonstrated the kind of performance that demonstrates why they are significantly ahead of the chasing pack at present.
They had spoken in the buildup about how they wanted a genuine challenge and the boos that rang out Stade Jean Bauger as they completed their warm-up served as warning as to what was to come. Infatti, 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. By this stage Alex Matthews, winning her 50th cap, had bandaging around her head after a collision left her face covered in blood – if England had wanted a step up in intensity that was precisely what they were getting.
Bern’s try settled them, tuttavia, and with Zoe Aldcroft persistent at disrupting France’s lineout, England 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 Simon 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. A converted try would have taken them in at the interval within a score but you sensed England’s ability to stand firm was among the most telling points in the match. They can perhaps count themselves lucky no penalty try nor yellow card was awarded but then the same could be said of France earlier in the half.
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 Maelle Filopon allowed Emily Scarratt to extend England’s lead with a penalty but the visitors 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, Oms, se nient'altro, now know precisely the levels they must aspire to.