The pity is the Championship is all but sewn up in advance. If England could take four bonus-point wins out of four, what chance do Scotland have in the gladiator’s ring known as Twickenham?
And what did that 2019 Lord Mayor’s Show put on parade? Either the wonderful display at Doncaster, where both England and France raised the game to new heights; or the more one-sided affair at Exeter, where you could say England women’s rugby came of age. When before have all four stands been filled for a 6N home match – three of them completely? Never?
For all the great games England women have engaged in, it’s doubtful if they have ever been so inspired by the crowd’s reaction and support as there . The final score, Vicky Fleetwood’s dive under the posts, was more or less willed by the fans.
So the inbuilt inequalities of the Six Nations continue.
Now imagine a magic wand casting a spell that allowed all six to operate as professional tomorrow. What would the outcome be then? You have to suspect that the table would read much the same as it does today (see below): England and France way out ahead; Italy still not quite able to achieve the lift-off they know is possible; and the three Celtic lands wishing they had a broader player-pool to support the efforts of their star performers.
The positive view is that playing standards are rising to admirable heights. Both the leading sides have immense power up front – allied to astonishing pace and handling skills such as their predecessors can rarely have known – plus decision-making and blinding speed out behind that make the game a joy to watch.
Kicking remains a relative weakness, though there are fine practitioners out of the hand and off the ground. Practice makes perfect.
But practice is at a premium for the amateur sides. They have a week to recover from the exertions of Round 4 and sort out weaknesses revealed. That magic wand is desperately needed.
At the wrong end of the table Scotland can feel hard done by. They have scored more points and tries than Wales; they have conceded fewer points. But those last crucial moments in the clash at Scotstoun did for them.
Simon Middleton was asked after the Italy game whether the Scotland fixture is the best possible curtain-call. He wisely said his team face five big challenges every year. It makes little difference what sequence they come in.
But the crowd at Twickenham is likely to be even bigger than at Sandy Park, and will certainly include far more people who need to be convinced of the validity of women’s rugby. If the Red Roses really paint the town red, the result could have the opposite effect from the one sought. The highest score ever in the competition is 89-0, between those two sides at the same location eight years ago.
The stats tell their own stark story: since the inception of the Six Nations in 2002 the two teams have met seventeen times; Scotland have yet to win (their last victory came in 1998). And in eight contests on English soil the combined points read: 456-26.
A revealing detail from Marcoussis, the National Training Centre: before they flew out to Dublin the French squad trained with their Sevens sisters.
As every elite nation tries to work out the best possible use of the available talent in the two formats, the French may possibly be showing the way. While England (still 2nd in world ranking) aim to walk off with the Grand Slam, their Sevens squad remains in 8th place in the world. France’s positions are 3rd (15s) and 5th (7s). Which of them can claim bragging rights?
Saturday 16 March England v Scotland – Twickenham 19.30
Sunday 17 March Wales v Ireland – Arms Park 13.30
Sunday 17 March Italy v France – Padua 13.30
6N Table after 4 Rounds
P W D L B Pts
England 4 4 0 0 4 20
France 4 3 0 1 4 16
Italy 4 2 1 1 2 12
Ireland 4 1 0 3 3 7
Wales 4 1 1 2 0 6
Scotland 4 0 0 4 1 1