It was the grassy banks of Whangarei that witnessed an attritional battle between two European beasts of women’s rugby on Saturday for the second round of Pool C.
Far from their prettiest win, England’s Red Roses held onto their lead to finish 13-7, only six points ahead of their French rivals in the latest episode of Le Crunch.
The encounter gave skipper Sarah Hunter a record equalling 137 caps with former teammate Rochelle ‘Rocky’ Clark, and extended the Rose’s winning streak to 27.
Always a clash fraught with passion, physicality and skill, England and France did not disappoint as they jostled for territory and possession throughout the test.
It immediately became clear that France would not allow England a sensational bonus point win akin to what they have been delivering of late.
Despite maintaining an overwhelming 73% of possession in the first half and spending a significant amount of time in their opposition’s 22, the Roses only came away with one try and a conversion for their efforts.
Much of this can be put down to the simply fantastic quality of the French defence.
Les Bleues completed an eye-watering 214 tackles, nearly three times that of their rivals, and thwarted the attempts of several powerful English names.
This defensive endeavour was made even more impressive when France lost two key players to injury within four minutes of each other in the first quarter.
The first came in the form of scrum-half Laure Sansus, 2022 Six Nations Player of the Championship and an ominous attacking threat.
Sansus suffered a torn ACL in the 12th minute and has since announced the injury has led the talismanic nine to end both her world cup and career.
The other loss was linchpin number eight Romane Ménager who failed a HIA assessment following being knocked out clean as her temple met Zoe Aldcroft’s hip.
It speaks to the depth of the squad therefore that they were able to maintain such a dominant defensive display.
The effort of centre’s Maëlle Filopon and Gabrielle Vernier in particular made you blink twice to check there weren’t four French flankers on the pitch, such was the ruthlessness of their driving tackles.
The second half saw a shrewdly taken penalty by Emily Scarratt, while France quickly hit back to claim their first and only try of the day: a beautifully timed cross-field kick from Caroline Drouin which bounced perfectly to allow Joanna Grisez a clean break with a pop to place Hermet over the line.
While they held onto the win, England’s output must be higher and Simon Middleton’s side will have much to mull over in the coming week.
To hold an overall 68% of possession and only come away with one try demonstrates the slightly adrift way England were playing this weekend.
It became obvious from the strength of the French defence that England were not going to command the game from their driving mauls off lineout or scrum.
Being stripped of their bread and butter should’ve provided an opportunity for the Roses to deploy their creativity in attack.
In the end, however, they just did not utilise their world-class backline effectively and failed to give them the space to execute moves, stretch the defensive line or take on their rivals on the wing.
The one try that England did take away derived from doing just that: after Leanne Infante lent the ball to Zoe Harrison, a quick switch to Scarratt saw an off-guard French defence unable to prevent the centre from powering over.
Harrison’s kicking game throughout the test brilliantly identified weaknesses in the confidence of the French back three under the high ball and gained England significant territory.
Nevertheless, the French came close to uncovering an underlying fear that sits in the back of the mind when you hear a team has gone 27 games unbeaten.
This fear is the most nerve-racking element of England’s game and it is not any particular flaw, but the unfamiliar territory of a real contest.
These tight battles are the reality of a World Cup and not every game will be a record-breaking thrashing, as England fans have become accustomed to in recent years.
A contest is what France provided over the weekend and England proved they were able to manage the threat, if by their fingertips.
Whether they will be able to rise to the contest of a side at the height of their game, such as New Zealand, is yet to be seen.
Le Crunch was physical, it was scrappy, but England got the job done and came away with the win.
The Red Roses face South Africa this Sunday at 5:45 am for the final round of the pools, but in beating the French have gone two from two and secured their progression to the quarter-finals.
France take on Fiji in their final pool match and may well meet England again in the knockout stages of the rugby World Cup.
For all our Women’s Rugby World Cup content click here.
Featured image credit: World Rugby