Super Series Round 4 – England show their hand

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England/France always brings a special tingle, but the encounter this week takes on new dimensions.

England’s team:

15 Sarah McKenna
14 Lydia Thompson
13 Emily Scarratt
12 Amber Reid
11 Kelly Smith
10 Zoe Harrison
9 Leanne Riley
1 Vickii Cornborough
2 Heather Kerr
3 Sarah Bern
4 Cath O’Donnell
5 Abbie Scott
6 Poppy Cleall
7 Marlie Parker
8 Sarah Hunter (Captain)

16 Lark Davies
17 Ellena Perry
18 Hannah Botterman
19 Zoe Aldcroft
20 Sarah Beckett
21 Claudia Macdonald
22 Emily Scott
23 Millie Wood

Here at last Simon Middleton reveals his full hand. The one surprise is the choice of Heather Kerr at hooker. Congratulations to her. Familiar figures return to raise hopes of victory: Marlie Packer at open-side and Sarah Bern at tight-head for starters.

Until Saturday 5 July you wouldn’t have given a penny for France’s chances of downing English colours. In the first round they had lost to Canada by worrying margin of 36-19 and looked all at sea. Then came the most dramatic result of the tournament so far: they downed the Black Ferns by nine points, registering their second successive win over them and with something to spare.

All of this without the mainstays of their pack over the last few campaigns, Safi N’Diaye, Lénaïg Corson and Romane Ménager. Surely, their lineout was going to prove even weaker than it was at Doncaster. No! Gaëlle Hermet, Coumba Diallo and others ensured a steady stream of possession. And at the set scrum the pack more than held its own.

On one of the rare occasions when she has represented her country without her sister taking the limelight, Marine Ménager was one of the outstanding backs; they offered stern defence and threatening attack. And the presence of Jessy Trémoulière at No 15 has had a huge influence on their well-being.

Up to now England haven’t been firing on all cylinders, partly because they haven’t yet fielded their strongest XV. The evidence of the four games involving these two sides makes plain the challenge they face.

We haven’t yet seen anything like the fluency in the three-quarter line that made the Six Nations games such a joy to watch. A midfield trio of Zoe Harrison, Amber Reed and Emily Scarratt should surely be able to offer Kelly Smith and Lydia Thompson more chances to show their paces.

Ball-retention will be all-important. Both in attack and defence, it has been lost at crucial moments, especially close to the opposition’s line. The penalty-count is a worry. The tighter the game, the less a side can win the day if the whistle is blowing against them. And we can’t pretend the best way to score is to have someone yellow-carded first. It has happened twice in recent games. It is not a recipe for ongoing success.

But the odds should be on England. If France manage to win a second major contest on the trot, that will be a huge achievement.

Fixtures for July 10:

France v England
Canada v USA