KINGSPAN STADIUM, Belfast -- And so it will be England and New Zealand, once again, challenging for the Women's Rugby World Cup in Saturday's final. But the scoreboard does this semifinal between the Red Roses and France a woeful disservice.
The eventual 20-3 win for England fails to do justice to their heroic defence, Meg Jones' last-gasp tackle on Julie Annery or the sheer bloody-mindedness it took for them to come through the monster test of this arm-wrestle of a last-four clash.
This was as enthralling a contest as you will see as both teams fought over every blade of grass for a spot in the final. That it was a prop, Sarah Bern, who finally managed to force her way over the try line was typical of a match where the teams spent so much of it using lung-busting willpower to try and break down the opposition's defence. Their other score came in the final throes when France already knew they were beaten.
It was a game where blades of grass were fought over. Only twice did the game really loosen its stranglehold to allow expansive rugby, but all the while you sat transfixed as the players' focus was given an unwavering challenge.
England are now into their fifth straight final, but a familiar foe lies in wait. Simon Middleton's Red Roses came to the World Cup as the team to beat. They are holders and knocked over New Zealand in Rotorua in June, but the Black Ferns have been wonderful here and the manner in which they booked their place in the final as they eased past the U.S. 45-12 in the first semifinal sent a timely reminder of their status as four-time champions.
But England will not want to surrender their crown easily. They were all heroic, with Alex Matthews superb at blindside in a back-row led admirably by captain Sarah Hunter. The young front-row found their feet early on while Abbie Scott and Tamara Taylor blended physicality and a subtleness to nullify the French power we saw earlier in the competition. That France No. 8 Safi N'Diaye had only one clear break is a testament to England's defence.
Saturday's match should be more expansive, but Tuesday's was an occasion where you felt whoever crossed first would win as the rain fell in the first half but then eased up as the game progressed. And so it proved when Bern went over to give England the lead that France never managed to pin back. It was attritional rugby at its brutal best.
The ball was kept in close quarters throughout, players occasionally got a chance to stretch their legs on the sodden Belfast turf, with play spreading through the hands from right to left and then back through the centres. But eventually the French defence's resilience gave out after 60 minutes and despite going over England's line through Annery, Jones' last-gasp tackle prevented Les Bleus from getting a foothold.
England then continued to keep France at bay and it was apt that Jones scored the final try to crown a truly memorable performance.
Middleton's side did not have it easy, far from it, but this was as close as you will see to an 80-minute performance where defence and attack seemed to mould seamlessly into one another. France had the lion's share of possession early on, but England had the best first-half chance when Emily Scarratt's break gave them the attacking platform they so desired, only for their troublesome ill-discipline to let them down.
Twice they were pinged for holding on, as their set piece dominance -- they stole two France lineouts, an area Les Bleus have used to such great avail here at the World Cup -- failed to turn into points.
But England's discipline improved in the second half, they conceded just two penalties and it allowed them to settle. France continued to test England's concentration, but they constantly re-arranged to nullify threats and then build through quick ball and attacking the outside shoulder. Eventually when chances came, England took them.
In a game as closely fought as this, the boot played a key role. England look more assured playing the space in behind France's defence with Katy McLean and Scarratt finding the gaps, while the latter -- who had struggled from the tee leading into Tuesday's semifinal -- finished with three kicks from four to give England essential breathing space.
The question now is whether England can prevent New Zealand from finding their stride in Saturday's final. Earlier in the day, in muggy, sweaty conditions, the Black Ferns eased past the United States with Portia Woodman scoring four tries.
The four-time World Cup winners are probably favourites but if England can stop them finding their stride, and limit the space for their back three -- Woodman is not their only threat as Renee Wickliffe and Selica Winiata would love to exploit any space afforded by a team trying to cut down dangers elsewhere -- then they will go a long way to reclaiming the title.
Both teams will need to recover quickly, but this was a sign that England are continuing to improve game on game. There was no drop off, instead they managed to roll with the French punches, and then land a couple of shots of their own. Saturday's final should be enthralling, and not for the faint hearted.