The first Quilter International – England v The USA – Allianz Park 9 November 2018
If you’re anxious for the action, move straight to Part Two…
The England squad selected:
15. Sarah McKenna (Saracens)
14. Lydia Thompson (Worcester Valkyries)
13. Carys Williams (Loughborough Lightning)*
12. Tatyana Heard (Gloucester-Hartpury)*
11. Kelly Smith (Gloucester-Hartpury)
10. Katy Daley-Mclean (Loughborough Lightning)
9. Leanne Riley (Harlequins)
1. Ellena Perry (Saracens)*
2. Lark Davies (Worcester Valkyries)
3. Shaunagh Brown (Harlequins)
4. Zoe Aldcroft (Gloucester-Hartpury)
5. Abbie Scott (Harlequins) (C)
6. Joanna Brown (Loughborough Lightning)
7. Vicky Fleetwood (Saracens)
8. Sarah Beckett (Firwood Waterloo)*
16. Heather Kerr (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks)
17. Vickii Cornborough (Harlequins)
18. Hannah Botterman (Saracens)
19. Catherine O’Donnell (Loughborough Lightning)
20. Sarah Hunter (Loughborough Lightning)
21. Claudia Macdonald (Wasps)*
22. Zoe Harrison (Saracens)
23. Lucy Attwood (Bristol)*
* = uncapped
This is the season of experiments, even more than is usual for Autumn internationals. With 28 contracts hanging outside on the line, to be collected in on New Years Day, Simon Middleton has shown confidence in an ultra-young and inexperienced 23 to play the USA. They total 455 caps, a mountainous total for the Eagles, but compare that with the 834 against Canada last November. Four debutants start the game, two more to come off the bench. Just nine players survive from the World Cup 2017, and of these, only three (Abbie Scott, Katy Daley-Mclean and Lydia Thompson) started in the decisive knock-out stages.
In stark contrast, Middleton picks two props who have never played there before in a test match (Ellena Perry and Shaunagh Brown – a No. 6 by trade); likewise a centre pairing (Tatyana Heard and Carys Williams). The back-row is equally untried, Vicky Fleetwood has played there before, for example on the New Zealand tour in June 2007, and she has 65 caps to her name, including the 2014 WC final. But her two partners, Sarah Beckett and Jo Brown have one cap between them.
Even the very experienced Sarah McKenna (full-back) has only 14 caps. Twelve of the squad can muster 22 caps between them.
Are we downhearted? No!
The selectors have been watching these fledglings closely all season in the Tyrrells and in the training sessions that have taken place recently. They know what they are capable of. And around them are the old hands who have been through it all before and will lead by example and the pointing finger.
Picking sides for a series of matches and a one-off are quite different processes. Middleton has 45 (or more properly 69) places to fill for the three Quilters matches and 28 players to fill them. It makes life easier if you decide in advance that all the bench will be used.
Part 2 The Game
Katy Daley-Mclean’s Day in the Sun?
If only! It certainly was a game to remember for England’s latest centurion (from hereon ‘KD-M’), only the sun was replaced by wind and sheeting rain. It made no difference to her game. When a loose American pass fell into her hands, she showed yet another of her rugby talents: sheer pace. She had two furlongs to cover; the chasing field couldn’t get near her. And her kicking and passing were straight out of the text-book once more.
If England put a relatively untried XV out, then consider the Eagles: of the 34 in the touring squad, 22 mustered 13 caps between them. Fortunately for the home side, none of their most dangerous backs, the centre Alev Kelter and the back three who got them through to the World Cup semi-final, Tapper, Emba and Thomas, made the trip.
England started into the wind and rain. They knew at worst that if they denied the Eagles in the first 40, they should find scoring much easier after the break. But no; they went straight on the attack; it took determined American defence to hold them out. The Red Roses had the upper hand in the set scrum and in their handling under pressure. Too many promising moves by the visitors were marred by a poor pass or muffed catch.
It took England seven minutes to mount their first score: a dominant scrum allowed Leanne Riley to scoot round the edge for the second try of her international career. (7-0)
The one unsavoury moment of the match reduced it as a contest. When the referee, Hollie Davidson, reviewed a tackle, she summoned the Eagles’ loose-head. Megan Rom and, to many people’s surprise, showed her a red card. She may have led dangerously with an elbow. She left the field in tears.
The Eagles responded well. A deft kick over the English defence saw Lydia Thompson forced to carry the ball over her own line. But the American scrum couldn’t exploit the position. The Roses were tackling with vigour and accuracy, and the chance was gone. Great credit to the visitors that they did disrupt a later England scrum to win a penalty, but once again, they couldn’t string enough passes together before the ball went to ground again.
On 25 minutes another fine pass from KD-M set Sarah McKenna away. The Saracen is in glorious form at the moment, and she skated through for a lovely try. (14-0)
After the half hour, things got serious for the Eagles. The young England forwards gave a decent imitation of the World Cup pack’s rolling maul, and Davidson ran under the posts to award the Roses 7 points. Even worse, Kate Zachary, the USA captain, was deemed the cause of the collapse, so now it was 15 v 13 for ten minutes. (21-0)
Two more scores within a couple of minutes put the game beyond reasonable reach of the visitors. First KD-M made a lovely break and found her new skipper, Abbie Scott, on her shoulder for a great try (28-0); then the icing on the cake – the breakaway score by the same KD-M, described above. Could she do no wrong?
Given the peculiar state of England women’s rugby at the moment, the one thing you knew as you waited for the sides to return was that the Red Roses would be going hell for leather right up to the final whistle. There was so much to play for – not merely a cherished home win, but a chance to press your claim for a place among the 28 who will receive full-time contracts in under two months. And that is merely the next step on the long trek to the 2021 World Cup.
As expected, Sarah Hunter resumed her place at No 8. The young Sarah Beckett had shown great promise in that demanding position. Hunter’s first decisive action was to offer Kelly Smith a scoring pass. The Hartpury winger is in such fine form that she didn’t need an open barn door to slide past the opposition (40-0)
Hunter reminded everyone that there were two centurions on the park by picking up at the back of an attacking scrum and doing the necessary. (47-0) You may notice the score was mounting mainly in sevens. KD-M again. (47-0)
Simon Middleton allowed her her own ovation as she was replaced by Zoe Harrison at No 10. Of the seven women players to reach the 100-mark, has anyone else put in such a memorable personal performance to mark the occasion?
It was good to see Harrison restored to health after a lengthy injury. Two or three times she offered discerning chips through, straight out of the KD-M manual.
Less pleasing was the way the Eagles’ pack shunted the reformed Roses’ eight backwards more than once. The same happened twelve months ago against the Maple Leafs. You wonder what the excuse is.
With five minutes to go, the Eagles got the reward their efforts richly deserved. The replacement left winger, Janine Duncan, slipped no fewer than three tackles to round the defence and dot down. (47-5) Should we be annoyed that England couldn’t keep a clean sheet? It seems ill-mannered to complain about an excellent try, but all too often in recent games England have let the opposition through in the closing moments. it happened decisively in the France game in Grenoble – a Grand Slam denied them by two points – then Ireland achieved the last try at Coventry when the result was already decided. And of course, the Eagles themselves mounted no fewer than three late tries in Dublin to qualify for the semi-final.
At least the last thrust was reserved for the hosts again. Claudia Macdonald, replacing Leanne Riley, made a break and Carys Williams – our thoughts fly to another centre with an interestingly Gallic name, Megan Jones – showed her immense power to score a try on her debut.
Final score: 57-5
The action moves next week to Doncaster, where a new-look England outfit will take on the Maple Leafs. Then it will be a last chance to impress the selectors at Twickenham against the Girls in Green. The make-up of the eventual England squad is so hard to discern at this distance. Think of two young ladies forced to sit and watch this game – Jess Breach and Ellie Kildunne, who chalked up 20 tries between them in a handful of appearances last autumn. Then there are characters like Emily Scarratt, Mo Hunt, Alex Matthews, Harriet Millar-Mills, Laura Keates, Megan Jones… I’ve got six players listed to play in the back row already. Do the laws allow for that?
In the other major contest the same evening, France couldn’t quite hold the Black Ferns in Toulon, but went down by only two scores, 14-0.
Both these nations will provide the Red Roses with problems galore in the coming years.