After three successive defeats in World Cup finals, the outpouring of emotion here for England was understandable. This time, though, the despair of the past had turned to joy on a grey Parisian evening that was lit up by a group of heroines in white. England are world champions again for the first time in 20 years, digging deep to edge past Canada and exorcise the demons of old.
The celebrations at the final whistle said it all. Eleven of England’s side from the 2010 final that ended in defeat to New Zealand started this victory, won by 12 points despite a fightback from the Canadians that, at one stage, threatened to extend the recent trend of pain for Gary Street’s side.
They had trailed England by 11 points as the first-half drew to a close but clawed back to 11-9 with 20 minutes remaining. In the end, though, there was to be no repeat of previous heartache. Emily Scarratt’s boot did not waver, Natasha Hunt stayed calm and Margaret Alphonsi lead from the front.
This is a team of plumbers, vets, teachers, police officers and students, the majority who have had to take three months’ unpaid leave to play in this tournament. For Street, it is the culmination of seven years’ work, driving up and down the country to visit players at their various workplaces, having initially left his job as a quantity surveyor.
In front of Stuart Lancaster and other members of the Rugby Football Union, Street’s team did England proud. They twice crossed the line but not until Scarratt converted her own try with six minutes remaining did the win appear assured.
It was a fitting way to end a tournament that has been a major success, with French crowds demonstrating how much the women’s game has progressed in recent years. During the pool stage there was an audience peak of two million on terrestrial TV.
Canada, who drew 13-13 with England in the pool stage, will rue wasted possession in the opening minutes. Francois Ratier’s side opted to kick for the corner instead of goal and could not build on their momentum, allowing England the chance to slowly creep up the pitch.
That was how Street’s side exerted their superiority during a frantic start, gradually breaking their opponents down and edging forward mechanically until the mistake from Canada arrived. Hunt broke through the red wall of defence with a quick shimmy and, while she was eventually brought down inside the opposition half, England won a penalty from the resulting ball inside Canada’s 22. Scarratt converted, with the flags of St George flying as they would do throughout the night. This was a 20,000 sell-out inside Stade Jean-Bouin – the home of Stade Français – and although a number of the French supporters had left the ground following their victory over Ireland in the third-place play-off, the atmosphere remained tense.
Canada’s best threat early on was through potential interceptions, the dangerous winger Magali Harvey almost plucking a looping pass out of the air before racing clear, yet it was England who were certainly the stronger team.
Street thought his side had extended their advantage after 20 minutes when Hunt looked to have stretched an arm over down the right for the opening try. But under pressure from the Canadian defence, she was adjudged not to have legally grounded the ball by the video referee.
It was a close call, but England would not have to wait long before increasing their lead. Scarratt converted her second penalty of the match soon later and seven minutes before half-time the full-back Danielle Waterman crossed.
It was the best move of the game, a team attack that involved excellent work from Tamara Taylor, who evaded her marker before offloading to Alphonsi, who then slipped in Waterman to finish simply out wide.
Canada pulled three points back in injury time from a Harvey toe-punt penalty, following an England offside, and they began the second half with renewed purpose – cutting the score by three following another penalty from Harvey that proved the catalyst for a period of sustained Canadian pressure.
Another penalty from Harvey cut the deficit to just two points but England responded immediately with three points of their own with 20 minutes remaining, Scarratt’s boot proving accurate again.
It was the centre who delivered the decisive blow to Canada, racing through late on before converting her own try to confirm England as 2014 world champions.
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