ENGLAND women have achieved a Grand Slam in European rugby for the fourth time in five years, in the process clinching their fifth consecutive RBS Six Nations title with an 11-10 victory over France in front of a hostile crowd in Rennes on Friday night. The win conceivably establishes England as favourites for the women's Rugby World Cup, to be played on home soil later in the year.
But this was no easy passage. France had lost earlier in the tournament to Scotland, a team subsequently thrashed 51-0 by England, but urged on by the raucous crowd France gave it everything, leading initially and making light of the dismissal of their leading forward, Claire Canal, who was red-carded at the end of the first half.
France had a chance to cause a remarkable upset when Aurelie Bailon, their fly-half, kicked for goal in the closing stages, but she fell short and England managed to scramble the ball away.
Gary Street, the England head coach, was apparently unflustered at the end. "Even though this was a tough game, victory was never in doubt in my mind. We knew that France would throw everything they had at us, but we showed great character and mental strength to turn this around."
France took an early lead with a penalty from Bailon but England regained their composure and a forward drive by the pack gave them an attacking position. Amy Turner, the scrum-half from Richmond, crossed for the try despite a populous cover defence and it was 5-3 to England at half-time.
They gained breathing space with a penalty by Katy McLean, of Darlington Sharks, but as errors were made in the wet conditions, England dropped the ball in midfield and France launched a thrilling counterattack. French wing Celine Allainmat scored with the loose ball and the conversion by Bailon took France into a 10-8 lead.
At this point, England's composure served them wonderfully well. They were reduced to 14 players when Karen Jones was sent to the sin-bin for a late tackle but McLean added her second penalty to take England into an 11-10 lead and, once Bailon's late kick missed the target, England were able to scrape home.
England had already beaten Wales (31-0), Italy (41-0), Ireland (22-5) and Scotland (51-0) so the Grand Slam was one of the most convincing in the women's game.
Catherine Spencer, the England number eight and captain, who passed 50 caps during the season, was particularly impressed by the team's attitude in the final stages. "We kept our composure and control, the attitude on the pitch was fantastic and when we look back, we can conclude that this was just the tight game we needed. You learn so much more from close games of this sort and you find out about your own weaknesses.
This team wants to improve all the time, and it was good to be in a good contest."
The England players now return to their clubs for the climax of the domestic season before gathering in the summer for a series of squad camps in preparation for the World Cup. The traditional dominance of New Zealand was exploded by England's win over them at Twickenham before Christmas. If the seedings for the World Cup work out as planned, the two teams at the top of the women's game will meet again in what will be a charged final at Twickenham Stoop in August.
Spencer's next priority was more mundane. "Now it is back to work on Monday," she said. This has been an outstanding season for her team, with England producing a series of results that put the exploits of the men's team in the shade. The best news from France is that there was no easy victory, just England glory.
SIX NATIONS PW D L F APts England 5 5 0 0 156 15 10 France 5 3 0 2 97 47 6 Ireland 5 3 0 2 69 52 6 Scotland 5 1 1 3 31 108 3 Wales 4 1 0 3 34 76 2 Italy 4 0 1 3 25 114 1
Up with the cup: England's all-conquering women celebrate their victory in Rennes; Photographer: DAVID ROGERS
Sunday Times (London, England) (March 21, 2010): p5.