Six Nations – Round 4 – England v Italy, Sandy Park Exeter
The moment Simon Middleton announced his side to meet the Italians, we could see the outline of a potential XV to take the World Cup in two year’s time. Little room for sentiment here – the contracted players who have been mere extras on the big stage remain so.
The choice of Zoe Harrison to play in the centre again is fascinating; her favoured position is of course fly-half. By shifting her out one place the selectors are offering an arrangement closer to the New Zealand tradition of playing two five-eighths, rather like having two No 10s controlling the tiller. It gives England more kicking options and may possibly help to feed the ball even faster to the two match-winning wingers. At Cardiff Harrison twice showed her deceptive running powers to get behind the defensive cordon. She has now played alongside two of England’s greatest ever centres, Rachael Burford (now on the bench) and Emily Scarratt (happily restored to restored to the strength).
At half-time last year the scoreboard read 7-7. Sarah Hunter and her team knew they had to respond to the crackling atmosphere building at Sandy Park.
Italy kicked off at the noon-day start to a roar from the expectant crowd. They went through some competent phases without gaining much ground till a fine kick by Rigoni took them to the English 22 metre line. Kicking remains a contentious issue in the women’s game, but there’s no doubting the advantage it can bring in clearing defensive lines and establishing attacking positions. Neither Rigoni nor her captain Manuela Furlan could compete with the skills shown by England’s midfield trio, Katy Daley-Mclean, Zoe Harrison and Emily Scarratt.
Harrison countered with a long range-finder that immediately put the visitors on the defensive. Then they felt the force of English tackles. Two of them needed early treatment, and sadly Gaia Giacomoli had to go off after struggling on for a few minutes.
With replacement loose-head Sara Tounesi on, England took advantage and Daley-Mclean kicked close to the Italian line. Perhaps they were too intent on offering the crowd an all–singing, all–dancing show too soon. The Azzurre proved hard to break down, and it was only in the 12th minute that Jess Breach finished off a fine movement. It involved Kelly Smith driving up the left from deep defence to half-way, then thrusts through the middle – till the almost inevitable conclusion of English attacks this season: a seventeenth try for the No 14 – in her sixth match. Record books are being re-written. Harrison sent over a splendid conversion from wide right, but then handed over duties to her No 10. 7-0
Every time Sarah Bern gets the ball in her hands these days, the crowd roars – and with justice. Now she burst though centre field, offering a cut-glass off-load to her support. Such skills used to be unknown in the front-row union – not any more.
Italy’s best moment came on 20 minutes. Beatrice Rigoni found herself faced with one last opponent and one support player outside her. Unfortunately, her impromptu pass out of the back door finished in touch. The chance had gone.
Even so, the Red Roses didn’t find scoring easy in that first half. They managed to complete two more tries, but it took them a good half-hour to mount their first unstoppable driven maul. Lark Davies squeezed her way underneath. 14-0
It needed one of the longest TMO interventions to decide that Sarah Hunter had got the last touch legally after a second mobile maul.
The general feeling was England had let the guests off pretty lightly for all the possession they’d enjoyed. And the players shared it. They came out of the blocks ready for decisive action. Bern took just one minute to add to the score with an unstoppable peel round the front of a line-out. 26-0
Sarah Beckett and Harrison showed deft touches, but Scarratt’s pass to Smith was slightly forward. Not to worry. There was huge rejoicing among the forwards as Marlie Packer – the face of today’s programme – forced her way over the line. 33-0
More delight as Vicky Fleetwood made a much-delayed return to fitness on 50 minutes and back in her original (and proper?) position of hooker. She was accompanied by Mo Hunt and Poppy Cleall, three players not designed to make the Italian job any easier.
But first the visitors got to within 5 metres of the English line before yet another knock-on deprived them of a merited score.
Next a penalty led to a drive finished off by the deserving Vickii Cornborough. 38-0
Now the purists could admire passing of the highest quality as KD-M, Scarratt and the returning Rachael Burford, lined up to let Breach see if she could score another try. She could. A well-placed fend saw Furlan left on the ground as she notched her eighteenth (18th!) try of her infant career. We won’t mention the numbers of tries recorded by certain other nations in this tournament. It all seems very unfair. 43-0
The crowd weren’t sated. They bleated for more.
When Abbie Scott took her turn to get on the score-sheet (49-0), there were seven minutes left. The same midfield trio spun wonder passes out left, but Smith was already back on the bench – no try this time. More baying from the supporters. 80 minutes were showing on the clock. The Red Roses seemed to find it just as vital as their young fans for them reach the half-century. They battered away at the blue line. The Azzurre defended gallantly; but at the umpteenth phase Fleetwood rolled back the years and drove head first to the line, just avoiding the post in her dive.
Player of the Match: Sarah Beckett – a signal honour for a young player in such distinguished company.
Simon Middleton declared himself very satisfied with the second-half performance. Perhaps his players had tried to reach the heights too quickly, buoyed by the tremendous reception they had received.
Once they settled to their task, they played some excellent rugby.
He mentioned specifically the lack of experience in his outside backs that revealed itself in various passages of play. Italy were a hard nut to crack. They kept battling right to the end.
All sorts of reasons can be offered for the vast crowd of 10,545 that turned out at Sandy Park for England’s first-ever test in the deep south-west. But let’s stick to one simple fact: the Red Roses are playing a brand of rugby rarely seen before on these shores. It’s enthralling to watch.
Even so, Exeter Chiefs showed what can be achieved when the local club and community pull together to attract this amount of interest in the women’s game. Well done, Exeter; well done, Devon.
15 Sarah McKenna 14 Jess Breach 13 Emily Scarratt 12 Zoe Harrison 11 Kelly Smith 10 Katy Daley-Mclean 9 Leanne Riley 1 Vickii Cornborough 2 Lark Davies 3 Sarah Bern 4 Abbie Scott 5 Cath O’Donnell 6 Sarah Beckett 7 Marlie Packer 8 Sarah Hunter (C) Bench: 16 Vicky Fleetwood 17 Hannah Botterman 18 Shaunagh Brown 19 Poppy Cleall 20 Joanna Brown 21 Natasha Hunt 22 Rachael Burford 23 Emily Scott
15 Sarah McKenna
14 Jess Breach
13 Emily Scarratt
12 Zoe Harrison
11 Kelly Smith
10 Katy Daley-Mclean
9 Leanne Riley
1 Vickii Cornborough
2 Lark Davies
3 Sarah Bern
4 Abbie Scott
5 Cath O’Donnell
6 Sarah Beckett
7 Marlie Packer
8 Sarah Hunter (C)
16 Vicky Fleetwood
17 Hannah Botterman
18 Shaunagh Brown
19 Poppy Cleall
20 Joanna Brown
21 Natasha Hunt
22 Rachael Burford
23 Emily Scott
15 Manuela Furlan (C) 14 Aura Muzo 13 Michela Sillari 12 Jessica Busato 11 Sofia Stefan 10 Beatrice Rigoni 9 Sara Barratin 1 Gaia Giacomoli 2 Melissa Bettoni 3 Lucia Gai 4 Valentina Ruzza 5 Giordana Duca 6 Ilaria Arrighetti 7 Giada Franco 8 Elisa Giordano Bench: 16 Lucia Cammarano 17 Silvia Turani 18 Sara Tounesi 19 Valeria Fedrighi 20 Francesca Sberna 21 Francesca Sgorbini 22 Maria Magatti 23 Camilla Sarasso
15 Manuela Furlan (C)
14 Aura Muzo
13 Michela Sillari
12 Jessica Busato
11 Sofia Stefan
10 Beatrice Rigoni
9 Sara Barratin
1 Gaia Giacomoli
2 Melissa Bettoni
3 Lucia Gai
4 Valentina Ruzza
5 Giordana Duca
6 Ilaria Arrighetti
7 Giada Franco
8 Elisa Giordano
16 Lucia Cammarano
17 Silvia Turani
18 Sara Tounesi
19 Valeria Fedrighi
20 Francesca Sberna
21 Francesca Sgorbini
22 Maria Magatti
23 Camilla Sarasso
The England squad showed six (one positional) changes from the Cardiff test:
Referee: Aurélie Groizeleau (France)
ARs: Sean Gallagher (Ireland) and Sara Cox (England)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)
Ireland 17 France 47
Scotland 15 Wales 17
Ireland v France
In an entertaining match in Dublin, the one discordant moment came when Ian Tempest showed Romane Ménager a red card for leading dangerously with her arm as she attempted to fend the Irish captain, Ciara Griffin. Strangely enough, the last red shown in an international in Western Europe involved the same misdemeanour – when the American prop, Megan Rom, was sent off very early in the game at Allianz Park against England in November. There is a fine line between a legal hand-off and the dangerous use of the arm, especially the elbow, by the ball-carrier.
It was good to see Caroline Boujard, now restored to her favoured wing position, playing with the verve and accuracy that escaped her at Doncaster. And France’s kicking problems were solved with the reappearance of Jessy Trémoulière (World Player of the Year): she kicked six conversions.
Scotland v Wales
The agony and the ecstasy
As the clock showed 81 minutes and 50 seconds Lleucu George’s conversion kick cleared the bar, and Scotland’s sad litany of near misses continued. Indeed, on 80 minutes they still had a 5-point lead. But the old story of failing to last the pace meant they spent those final seconds desperately defending their line.
Jade Konkel got the first touchdown on seven minutes, thanks to forward power. 5-0
Five minutes later Robyn Wilkins defied a strong breeze to knock a penalty over. 5-3 Wales mirrored the hosts; efforts by driving over close to the left post, Bethan Lewis with her debut try. 5-8
When Sarah Bonar scooted round another driving maul to post Scotland’s try, the crowd went as wild as the players. 10-10
Just before half-time Wales’ superiority at the scrum allowed them to wheel and drive over.
Then guess what! Yet another TMO decision – there had been a knock-on down on the ground amid the pounding hooves.
The worrying feature of both teams was the reluctance to commit to back play. Even after a series of powerful drives, neither side felt confident about sending the ball wide. Wind or no wind, the backs deserve more trust. Players like Jaz Joyce and Claire Rollie can turn a game in a trice. Rollie proved the point dramatically when the Scots trusted their handling ability to let her finish a thrilling move 15-10
But then came the bitter pill of those closing moments.
The mood was lighter earlier in the day when Gemma Fay, Head of Scottish Women’s Rugby, announced 14 rugby scholarships to mark International Women’s Day