France 4-40 England: Jodie Cunningham, Emily Rudge, Caitlin Beevers, Amy Hardcastle all score

France (0) 4
Tries: Bianchini
England (16) 40
Tries: Hardcastle, Travis, Rudge (2), Cunningham, Jones, Beevers Goals: Stanley 5, Stott

England cruised to victory over France in their women’s international in Perpignan.

After a scrappy opening with errors from both sides, Amy Hardcastle burst forward and touched down the first try.

Paige Travis carved through the centre of the French defence with skipper Emily Rudge crossing in each half.

Jodie Cunningham, Tara Jones and Caitlin Beevers all darted clear in the second half, with Melanie Bianchini grabbing a France consolation late on.

England thrashed Wales 60-0 in their last game in June and it looked like being another defensive shutout, but they could not hold out, conceding with 20 seconds remaining.

With the players having full-time jobs, including NHS frontline worker Hardcastle, they travelled to France on the morning of the game having had Covid tests at 05:00 BST.

Craig Richards’ side came up against France after the World Cup was postponed until next year and chalked up a rampant triumph to make it 18 wins from 19 meetings, with the other a draw.

Afterwards Cunningham paid tribute to captain Rudge, 29, who made a record-breaking 24th England appearance.

“Emily is a great leader for us on and off the field,” said Cunningham. “Breaking the record for England appearances is special, and it’s brilliant that she marked it with two more tries.”

In a double-header at Stade Gilbert Brutus, England’s men’s side defeated France 30-10 later on Saturday.

‘I will never fault the team’

England head coach Craig Richards on BBC Two: “I don’t know about comfortable – it didn’t look it sat up there – but I will never knock my team in terms of energy, grit and a performance we should be proud of, especially in defence.

“A few things in attack we can work on, but I will never fault that team.

“We talked about they would front-load their energy, they did that in parts, but we never lost belief and kept turning up for each other, we changed one or two things in the middle, but France are a good, tough side in an intimidating atmosphere.”

From dog walkers to fire cannons

This was the first women’s rugby league international to be shown on terrestrial television and former England player Danika Prim says it is “incredible” how far the game has progressed.

“I can’t really articulate how great the game has grown,” she said on BBC Two. “In 2015/16/17 we were playing in front of maybe 20, 30, 40 people on a field that had been walked on in the morning by the dog walkers.

“To 2021, we’re at Headingley, which is a great stadium, in front of nearly 4,500 people (for the Challenge Cup final). The girls are having to adapt to being on TV, the cues, the timings of all that, coming out to fire cannons, to an opera singer, to a crowd where you are playing and you can’t hear the calls because we are just not used to having that.”

Former England and Great Britain international Jon Wilkin says it offers a “huge opportunity for rugby league to grow”.

“We talk about expanding the sport and increasing the footprint of the sport, well I think the women’s game is an unbelievable chance to do that,” he added.

“Plus it gives an unbelievable reason for big brands to get involved in a sport that is so diverse and inclusive, and it is something we have done incredibly well as a sport, we should celebrate it.

“The women’s game is of equal importance to the men’s game and the disability game, and that’s incredible. The women’s game is a fundamental part of our sport now.”

Asked how long it would be until England’s women’s players are earning a living from the sport, Prim added: “We are getting there. The women are going to be on equal pay for the World Cup, which is great.

“They’ve been on TV, having bigger events, getting people involved, getting the sponsorship and endorsement, getting whatever we need to generate more financial backing for the women. We are not far off, but just need that little bit more interest.”

And Wilkin believes the women’s game has an opportunity to surpass the men’s from a commercial standpoint.

“It is important the women’s game is self-sufficient and provides commercial revenue to support itself as well,” he said. “Because the opposite of equality is being completely reliant on the men’s game for your existence.

“I could see the women’s game surpassing the commercial viability of the men’s game due to how attractive it is for investment, how quick it could be to grow, and how much of a big audience it has got to go at.

“Rugby league could be one of the first team sports to really go after young girls all over the country to get involved. If I was in charge of rugby league I would be excited about that.”

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