England and France’s Six Nations decider shows how far the women’s game has come
The signs have been up for weeks now, familiar warnings of a major event to come. Expect delays, they say, on 29 April; there’s a rugby game on at Twickenham. Those unfortunate enough to be particularly well acquainted with the Surrey swing of the London Orbital will recognise the notices, ready to swerve the matchday swell around Junction 12 that accompanies any England matchday.
But for those with long associations with women’s rugby, those same neon flashes have brought a lump in the throat and a tear to the eye and a prompt for reflection. On Saturday afternoon, England’s women take to the Twickenham turf for the first time in a standalone fixture, with in excess of 53,000 tickets sold for the best-attended women’s rugby fixture in history. The warnings of the crowds to come have stirred special feelings for those who have fought so long to lay the foundations for progress and a day just like this.
“We used to play in front of one man and his dog and we were always told, ‘nobody else wants to watch this’," England great Giselle Mather explained to the BBC this week. “They actually do. It’s a watershed moment for us.
“If I want to turn my TV on and watch women’s sport, I now have the choice. If I want to go and watch it live, I now have the choice. In the past, other people made that choice for me and decided that only men’s sport would be on the TV, only men’s sport would be put into the big stadiums, ticketed and given the platform and media coverage to excel.”
Four years ago, the Red Roses played their last fully-fledged international fixture in front of fans at the home of English rugby. Then, England’s record win over Scotland was caught in the evening squall, a bitter wind carrying heavy rain larruping largely empty Twickenham seats as much of the crowd dispersed at the end of an England men’s Six Nations game. It felt unfair and unfortunate, an evening afterthought of a game in a competition still all too often in the shadows.
Not so now. The Women’s Six Nations will need more consistently competitive fixtures to retain legitimacy over the coming years but here we have a showpiece decider between the two best teams in the competition on the biggest stage it has yet seen.
England and France have rebuilt quickly in this campaign, each shorn of a smattering of senior figures since the autumn’s World Cup but still head and shoulders ahead of the rest. Both have favoured an attacking, exuberant style; perhaps with a trophy at stake there will be a return to the brutalist battles of the past but both sides have preached continued ambition in the week.
It is now more than five years and eleven games since the hosts were last beaten by their nearest northern hemisphere rivals but France have pushed them close on many an occasion in that intervening period. When the two last met at Twickenham behind closed doors in November 2020, it took a late English penalty to snatch an improbable last-minute win in a game France had largely had the better of.
This grand slam decider could well be similarly tight. England are seeking a fifth successive Six Nations crown to herald the end of an era, with Simon Middleton departing as head coach after this championship’s conclusion.
France fly-half Jessy Tremouliere, meanwhile, plays the final game of her illustrious career and will look to unpick a starting England backline that features a fit-again Helena Rowland at outside centre for the first time in her international career. Middleton has been boosted by the availability of Hannah Botterman and captain Marlie Packer, each passed fit after injury scares against Ireland.
𝘼 𝙧𝙚𝙘𝙤𝙧𝙙 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙨𝙥𝙚𝙖𝙠𝙨 𝙛𝙤𝙧 𝙞𝙩𝙨𝙚𝙡𝙛 🌹🔥#RedRoses pic.twitter.com/SOXMTH63LW
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) April 27, 2023
“We definitely talked as a group about how we want to play and not make the gameplan emotionally driven,” openside Packer said this week. “It is easy to fall into that. Naturally, the emotion will be there because of the occasion it is, going for a grand slam at Twickenham. It is a really special thing to play there and we are trying to make sure everyone is prepared for what is about to happen on Saturday.”
While there is no doubt that the rugby will take centre stage, Saturday will also be a celebration for all of those that have paved the way. Packed together in one block will be hundreds of the sport’s pioneers, encouraged to wear their representative caps in recognition of all they achieved on and off the pitch to break down barriers and lay the foundations. Rugby’s ailments are many and multitudinous but from the boom of the women’s game you can take hope that, for at least part of the game, there are rosier times to come.
There is a sense that this is an overdue end to the beginning – at last women’s rugby has the stage it merits. But this, it is worth remembering, is only chapter one, with a long way still to go. The Rugby Football Union’s stated goal is to sell out Twickenham for the final of the 2025 World Cup. If it was a goal that seemed optimistic when first revealed last January, ticket sales for this encounter have shown it to be anything but. Fulfilling that ambition is now almost an expectation rather than a hope. Two months ago, a senior figure in Irish rugby reportedly asked who gives a f*** about women’s rugby. Who indeed.