It was a sight almost as jarring as that of international rugby being played at an empty Twickenham.
With the match clock ticking towards the hour mark and England, trailing 18-10, pinned inside their own 22 by an excellent Jessy Trémoulière touch-finder, the hosts’ cavalry charged onto the field.
Led by the experienced Natasha Hunt, Marlie Packer and Emily Scarratt, all eight of the Red Roses replacements sprinted into action, taking even some of those on the pitch by surprise.
It was a bold roll of the dice by England coach Simon Middleton, but one that clearly underlined the fact that France had been the better team for the first three quarters of the match.
Les Bleues had recovered from conceding the match’s first try, against the run of play, to score two of their own in the first half. The second was fit to light up any occasion, as Cyrielle Banet ran half the length of the pitch, stepping around Ellie Kildunne with style, to touch down in the right corner.
Banet was sin-binned early in the second half, but France still looked to be in control of the match as the winger notched her second try of the match three minutes after England’s replacement gamble.
RWC 2021 rivals
Having lost the first test in Grenoble 33-10 seven days previously, Les Bleues had a chance not only to level the two-match series, but to lay down a marker ahead of the Women’s Six Nations and Rugby World Cup 2021.
Less than two days before their meeting at Twickenham, the two sides had been drawn together in Pool C of next year’s tournament. The outcome of the RWC 2021 Draw had added extra spice, if any were needed, to this latest edition of Le Crunch.
However, it was England who landed a psychological blow on the road to New Zealand 2021.
Tries from Poppy Cleall and Kildunne cut France’s lead to a solitary point. And as the Red Roses built pressure with time running out, France hooker Agathe Sochat was penalised at a breakdown, to hand Scarratt the chance to complete England’s comeback.
World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Year 2019 Scarratt admitted to BBC Sport that she felt the pressure of the situation. But, it didn’t show as she stroked the ball over the posts to confirm a 25-23 victory.
“We had to show our character and resilience,” Middleton said. “The game was nowhere near where we’d have liked it to have been in terms of how we wanted it to pan out. That’s international rugby. It’s not always how you want it to be.
“What it’s about then is how you adapt and find ways [to win]. This group found a way, which is amazing. We’ll learn more from that than winning easy or even staying in front all the way through a game. Credit to France, they played a really strong game.
“The starting group did well for 60 minutes against a very strong opponent but started to fatigue and our replacements did a great job when they came on.
“We played as a squad and got the job done. It’s great to end the year with a win.”
The result stretched England’s winning run against France to seven matches, while the Red Roses have lost only once in their last 12 meetings with Les Bleues, dating back more than four years.
With England scheduled to be at home when the teams meet in the Women’s Six Nations this season, Middleton’s squad will be confident of extending that run of results ahead of New Zealand 2021.
Not that anyone in a white shirt will take a victory for granted, having been run so close at Twickenham — and in the first half in Grenoble a week earlier.
“We have had some battles with those girls but that was one of the best performances from a France side I can remember,” Katy Daley-Mclean said.
“We showed great character and I am really proud of our girls. The intensity with which France started caused us a lot of problems. I think our winning edge and mentality is going to be important.
“As much as it wasn’t pretty, it’s still a win in our column, which is crucial heading into a World Cup year.”