Backed by a loud home crowd, France pushed, shoved and bullied its way back into its semi-final with Canada at the women’s rugby World Cup.
Down a player and on the defensive, Canada managed to slow the host team down just enough, and when the final whistle sounded the Canadians were headed to their first ever World Cup final.
Magali Harvey scored the game-winning try and Canada escaped with a tense 18-16 win over France on Wednesday.
The French used their powerful forwards to score two late tries after Harvey gave her team an 18-6 lead. But France’s Sandrine Agricole missed both conversions, sealing her team’s fate.
“It happens in every playoff. The last five or 10 minutes are always painful,” Canada coach François Ratier said.
“We almost killed the game in the first 20 minutes of the second half. We couldn’t score that third try that would have been the end of the French hopes.”
While France took it to Canada in the latter part of the second half, the hosts still had to work hard for every inch they gained and both of their tries came on time-intensive drives. France’s inability to score quickly against Canada proved to be the difference.
“It was tough. I can tell you the crowd was waking up too because there was 20,000 pushing the French team,” Ratier said. “I think the girls were amazing the last 10 minutes just to resist the huge pressure.”
Canada looked like it might be on its way to a comfortable win when Harvey ran the length of the pitch to score Canada’s second try of the game six minutes into the second half. Her conversion gave Canada an 18-6 lead.
But the French fought back and scored two late tries, and had they been able to convert them both it would be the hosts and not Canada advancing to meet England in Sunday’s final.
“Obviously it was a very loud stadium, so we really had to keep tight, keep controlled, and obviously we wanted to control ourselves and stay connected,” Canada captain Kelly Russell said.
After a first half that saw Harvey and France’s Sandrine Agricole kick two penalties each, Canada finally managed to break through the French defence shortly after the half.
Elissa Alarie scored the game’s first try three minutes into the second half. Alarie made like she was going to pitch the ball wide to a teammate, and when France’s defenders went for the fake she ran the ball in for the score.
It was the first try that France had surrendered at the tournament. It was also justice for the Canadians, who felt they deserved more from a first half that saw them apply constant pressure to the French defence.
“We really knew we had to come out hard in the second half, and we believe in playing rugby and exploiting opportunities that are in front of you,” Russell said. “We’re a fit team, and that carried us through the second half.”
Harvey uncharacteristically missed the conversion but didn’t wait long to make up for it. With Canada near their end zone, Mandy Marchak pitched the ball to Harvey, who ran almost the length of the field to score Canada’s second try.
“We are very mobile, so every turnover opportunity we try to move the ball wide and score,” Ratier said. “We’ve been doing it since the beginning since we’ve started working together, so it’s not a particular strategy. They know when they get the ball in front of them they have to move the ball and attack.”
Harvey, who earlier Wednesday was named to the shortlist for the IRB Women’s Player of the Year award, kicked the conversion to give Canada a 12-point lead.
Just when it seemed like Canada had the momentum, the French stormed back. They scored their first try of the game when they pushed the ruck into Canada’s end zone and Safi N’Diaye touched down to cut Canada’s lead to 18-11.
Agricole missed the conversion.
With time running out, Canada’s Mary Jane Kirby was shown a yellow card to leave her side with 14 players. France took advantage, rumbling across the line and scoring when Assa Koita touched down to make it 18-16.
Agricole lined up for the conversion with a chance to tie the game, but she missed again. A depleted Canada was able to hold on for the remaining few minutes to earn its first trip to the final.
“(The French) played very conservative rugby based on big rolling mauls,” Ratier said. “I’m surprised they didn’t try to move the ball a bit more, but when they tried our pressure in the centre was so high that they couldn’t handle it.”
In Wednesday’s other semi-final, England beat Ireland 40-7.
Canada and England played to a 13-13 tie earlier in the tournament. Ratier said he expects another physical match on Sunday.
“England is England. They play the same as us. It’s go forward rugby, direct rugby,” Ratier said. “If we match them physically, then everything is possible. And we will match them.
“England said to everyone they would be world champions so okay, fair enough, do it, but it’s up to them.”
Regardless of Sunday’s result, this has been a good week for women’s rugby in Canada. Along with Harvey, Russell was also short-listed for the women’s player of the year award.
“We’re really happy that Canada came out with two nominations,” she said. “It just goes to show the hard work we’re putting in and how the team’s playing. We can’t do it alone, so it’s a whole team effort out there.”