Red Roses make it eight straight wins over France and three successive championships
England win Women’s Six Nations 2021
It was not exactly a convincing performance, particularly in attack, but a 10-6 victory made it three back-to-back championships for the Red Roses.
This tournament desperately needed a competitive fixture following the one-sided nature of the pool contests. That is what the two best sides in Europe delivered at the Stoop, although they did not show their true best.
Neither team would have played a match of this intensity and physicality since they met across the road at Twickenham in November, and that showed in both nerves and error counts.
Yet at least it was a close contest. In fact, the match was so evenly matched that the score was still 0-0 going into the 40th minute – and that was the moment Poppy Cleall struck.
There was a ferociousness to both teams’ defence in the first half, in terms of physicality and line speed, while France had a clear edge at the scrum.
The reduction in scrums in the Allianz Premier 15s, which is being played under adapted laws this season due to Covid, may well have had an impact on that set-piece for the hosts. As for the other set-piece, it was almost as if the team not throwing into the lineouts was more likely to win possession.
France certainly looked more dangerous with ball in hand and burst into life whenever there was a turnover to make huge gains in territory, but they couldn’t show the same clinical edge that was evident in their pool victories over Wales and Ireland to convert those opportunities into tries.
They did get across the line from one such break, Emilie Boulard going over after impressive work from tighthead Rose Bernadou, who was heavily involved throughout the 38 minutes she lasted before being replaced (she did return for the final ten of the game), but the try was ruled out for a forward pass.
Both Emily Scarratt and Caroline Drouin missed penalty shots at goal in the first half-hour too, and the deadlock wasn’t broken until the last play of the opening period.
England mounted their best attack of the game from a lineout before the move broke down inside the 22, France secured possession and looked to counter from close to their own line only for loose passes to check their progress and force a kick.
Referee Hollie Davidson called things back for an England scrum five metres out – a decision that caused some debate – and when subsequently awarded a free-kick, Cleall took a quick tap, cut a diagonal line towards the posts and then produced a slick offload to Zoe Harrison, who got within a metre of the line.
A quick recycle and it was Cleall, of course, who picked up and barged over from close range for the opening points. Scarratt converted to make it 7-0 at half-time.
The game lost rhythm in the second half, becoming more staccato as error and penalty counts increased. Both teams struggled to put together multiple phases and kicking became more prevalent as they looked to force mistakes from the opposition under the high ball in the glare of the sun.
Drouin kicked an early penalty and added a second in the 72nd minute to make it a one-point match going into the closing stages – and that is when England showed their winning mentality.
The Red Roses set up camp in the France half from a series of penalties and when awarded another in the 22, Scarratt slotted it and they were able to close out yet another victory.
“It wasn’t a feast of running rugby that people may have been anticipating,” said England coach Simon Middleton. “But rugby is a tough game, a brutal game, and when you have two teams that are so physical going toe-to-toe you get something like we saw out here. In its own way it was a beautiful game.”
Both teams may be grateful that they have an extra year to build towards the World Cup following its postponement, though, as they need to play more fixtures of this intensity to prepare for the pressure of that tournament.
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