England cemented their status as favorites in the Women’s Rugby World Cup but were pushed to the finish with a 13-7 win over France in New Zealand on Saturday.
Earlier, Australia beat Scotland 14-12 and the United States trailed Japan 30-17, leaving the two teams on the brink of elimination.
A tense day of matches at Whangarei was crowned with a Pool C showdown between two Six Nations heavyweights, with England and France’s leading contenders reuniting for next month’s final.
Emily Scarratt extended her unbeaten run to 27 games and scored all of England’s points, including one try.
A 13-0 conceded 13-0 with 15 minutes remaining gave France a sliver of hope with a goal against a string of plays through substitute forward Gael Hermé.
However, England’s possession and territorial dominance continued into the closing stages, while they continued to waste scoring opportunities against a stubborn French defensive line.
England captain Sarah Hunter wasn’t surprised by the tight nature of the game.
Hunter, who tied England’s Test cap record with his 137th appearance, said: “We know that the last few games we’ve played against France have ended with a close margin and tonight will be no exception. I did. Two very good teams.
World No. 1 France forced 4th place France to tackle more than 140 times in the first half alone.
Her conversion and penalty goals on both sides at half-time helped seal the win against an opponent who injured two key players in the first 20 minutes.
Scrum-half Laure Sansus and number 8 Romane Menager were carried off the field and their suitability for the remainder of the game against France was unknown.
In the previous two games, four teams lost in last week’s opener.
Scotland need to upset hosts New Zealand in next week’s final round for a chance to advance from Pool A to the quarter-finals. Meanwhile, Japan faces the same scenario against their Pool B rivals Italy.
The little fancied Japanese threatened a big upset when they led the United States 5-3 at halftime.
Still leading by two points with 25 minutes remaining, they were unable to hold off the Eagles who scored tries from Joan Kitlinski, Elizabeth Cairns, Jeanine Dethibault and Aleb Kelter.
US captain Kate Zachary said her team reached another level when they realized what was at stake after a modest first half.
“Deep down, the players know how important the second half was,” Zachary said.
“We said we needed to shine in the second half and all the players did.”
This match contrasted with the only other meeting between the two nations in the 1994 World Cup when the United States won 121-0 in pool play.
Australia were nervous after losing both hookers to red cards in the closing game against Scotland.
Second-half tries from Bienne Territa and Ashley Marsters helped the Wallaroos overcome a 12-0 deficit, but both Marsters and Adiana Tarakai were sent off for high tackles, making the match tense. ended with
Australian captain Shannon Parry was relieved after their first loss to New Zealand, 41-17.
“I was a little nervous. It was a really tough fight,” Parry said.
“We didn’t play as clinically as we would have liked, but we get the points. We’re still in this tournament and that’s what matters.”
It was the second narrow defeat for Scotland, who lost 18-15 to Wales last week.