England and France’s Friday night friendly was nothing but in name, repeating last week’s lacklustre Six Nations final. After beating France last week by four, Captain Sarah Hunter described France as “a wounded animal”. At stake, pride and England’s top spot in the world rankings. Get out the popcorn and turn down the lights.
France’s scrum-half Pauline Bourdon was pushing an impressive pace of play before a quick tap and some heavy forward carries took France within striking distance of England’s line. Looping off a ruck, Bourdon received the ball off a forward pod to play centre Maëlle Filopon into a neatly orchestrated half-gap. She would go over for the first points of the game at the nine minutes.
Four minutes later England’s winger Abby Dow received a looping miss pass from centre Emily Scaratt, an arcing line saw her fade away from full-back Jessy Tremouliere’s grasp. Dow’s Pace delivered her to the try line untroubled and England were level after Zoe Harrison added on the extras.
After several dominant scrums, France saw the reward for their efforts. Playing an advantage off the base Bourdon sent Trémoulière on a short ball through England’s defence. Bread and butter, but France missed the conversion leaving England 2 ahead.
If Dow had cast a spell on Tremouliere to score England’s first, she was about to hypnotise half a dozen French players to score her second. Feilding a challenging kick on her 10-metre line sidestepping France’s number eight and then ghosting past several defenders with abandon.
Dow checked the retreating Bourdon and went over for five. Scaratt took England two ahead setting aside the Final’s uncharacteristic misses.
The second half took neatly followed where the first had left us. France continuing dominance in defence and scrum, yet England refused to be bullied around the park. England’s strong kicking game never left them on the back foot for too long and after a penalty apiece England were 15-17 up.
A tussle where Poppy Cleall unduly held onto Julie Annery leg saw the French player yellow carded after subsequently putting a knee to Cleall’s face. Reminding us the game retains some of the tit-for-tat nastiness of the amateur era.
If the final game was two fighters dancing around the ring but never landing a convincing blow, this was France and England were going toe-toe. If you were looking for clichés around women’s rugby, then this game was dispelling them.
And just as fans were rubbing their hands for a grandstand finish the lights went out.
In a situation bearing comical resemblance to the MC staff’s desire to turn the floodlights off during the closing quarters of floodlight cup games, the lights went off at 10:30 local time. But this wasn’t the heady heights of college sport but a fully-fledged international. Maybe someone forgot to put 50p in the meter. I couldn’t possibly comment.
England claimed player welfare would be at risk after a lengthy interval but were safe in the knowledge that after 60 minutes the result stands. Eventually, after some apathetic discussion, it was decided that the game would be ended there and then.
Many consider England lucky as the only professional female team in the world. Yet the players sacrifice their bodies, best days of youth and careers to put on the white jersey. In return, players receive a pay packet commensurate with the average Durham graduate whilst swimming against engrained resistance and misogyny to ply their trade.
This wasn’t just a kick in the teeth, it was a stab in the back.
If the success of the grassroots game is partially dependent on the ‘see it to be it’ effect, unions need to be not only investing for better player setups but battling for the coverage and respect the game deserves. The entire scenario felt like a microcosm for the struggles women’s rugby has battled with for decades.
If no one can see what’s on offer, how will fans and potential players know how good the product can be?
Women’s sport is still lacking in exposure, quality and quantity. England’s Six Nations Easter opener against Scotland was shown on the red button whilst viewers on BBC 2 were treated to a 2014 repeat of Flog It.
Still, Friday nights showpiece had no studio pre-game or half-time coverage. A situation unimaginable for a person familiar with male rugby’s normal fanfare. The BBC didn’t even have a correspondent in the stadium when the lights went out, instead choosing to broadcast online only with remote commentary from London.
Positively, social media grumblings over female rugby coverage and the #ICare response were put to bed when 600,000 tuned in to watch the Women’s six nix nations final on BBC2. Compared to BT’s poultry 205,000 for the lockdown Premiership semis.
Build it and they will come.
Image: John Walton via Creative Commons