One of the defining moments of England’s gritty defensive display in Pau last week came when so little appeared to be left in the tank.
The Red Roses had held firm to keep the French onslaught late in the first half at bay to recharge at the interval leading narrowly, 12-10.
But when the inspirational Emily Scarratt crossed on the hour mark, it did little to alleviate the pressure on England. Instead, it spurred France into attacking frenzy.
Back row forwards Vicky Fleetwood and Sarah Beckett seemed to be everywhere and tackling everything, as the French attacked in waves.
On came the replacements to energise a side which had been sapped by the 25 degree heat of the French south-west. And, yet, it was an act from starting fly-half Katy Daley-McLean that France’s steely intent turned into a hopeless, pierced balloon as the 34-year-old won a turnover at the ruck on 73 minutes.
It was one moment lasting a fraction of a second which summarised England’s will to go on and on and on throughout both halves.
And it is players like 111-cap Daley-McLean who Fleetwood believes have set the tone for Grand Slam-winners England’s strong form over the past 12 months.
“She hasn’t shut up about that, let’s put it that way! She’s been living off that this week,” Fleetwood told The Rugby Paper.
“I was off the pitch at the time but we were all going crazy. It is not something that she would normally be doing in her role at No.10 quite as regularly as some of the other players.
“We just knew from that moment that we needed to keep ball and make sure that the players in the senior positions made the right calls when it came to running the clock out.”
Victory for England, their fifth on the bounce over the French, was one that saw England score all their three tries off the back of the set-piece.
Abby Dow’s opening score coming in the phases following a scrum, while Fleetwood’s own try and Scarratt’s effort came by way of the lineout.
Weaknesses in the scrum were exposed, but England had the defensive rigidity to come through.
“Our defence is something that we pride ourselves on,” Fleetwood affirmed. “If we can get that right then the rest can come naturally and we don’t need to force anything.
“As a pack of forwards we are really gelling, of course, there are things we can work on and improve on.
“There’s definitely a good feeling within the pack, we all buy into our own individual roles. If we can provide when we can as forwards to give the backs the momentum to then create the scores that’s what we want to do. It’s something that Richard Blaze, our forwards coach, has really drummed into us that we have to take teams on up front. We spend a lot of time and pride on the strength of our rolling maul and lineout drives, I would say we have more options as jumpers in our team than most teams we face.
“You need that strength in depth to be a successful side. The fact that we can bring in the new players and give then experiences now before something as big as the World Cup, and have those players push the seniors week in, week out for their shirts is something that can only improve everyone.”
On a personal level, Fleetwood is set on being England’s No.7 at the World Cup in New Zealand next year and has been afforded some freedom to state her case to head coach Simon Middleton with Marlie Packer having undergone ankle surgery.
Earning a portion of her 73 caps in the front row as hooker won’t be lost on Fleetwood’s future, but the all-action role of a seven is what stokes the fire from within.
“I much prefer playing in the back row but I did play in the front row for so many years. When it comes to throwing in the lineout I just need to practice and practice and practice, and keep up with it in case something happens in a game,” she added.
“I am trying to play as a back row and I am really enjoying it and thankful the opportunity to focus on that coming back from the Sevens circuit.”
“I can use the skills and the fitness that I built through Sevens and what I learned playing in the front row and develop on that as a back row – that is the position that I want to play and will be working on going forward.”
Part of the England team present at the Sevens Rugby World Cup in San Francisco and bronze medallists at the Commonwealth Games two years ago, does the Saracens forward fancy a crack at Olympic gold in Tokyo with Team GB this summer?
“For me personally, I’m going to be sticking with XVs. I don’t think any of the players will be going back to Sevens. It is down to the individuals and the coaches and what they want to do – but for me I’m sticking with XVs.
“New Zealand is definitely the goal, my long-term goal.”
Read more from Vicky Fleetwood in this weekend’s TRP, in which she previews England’s Six Nations match against Scotland at Scotstoun.
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