Six Nations Round 2 Preview:
France v Italy at Limoges 8 February 20.00 GMT
Ireland v Wales at Energia Park, Donnybrook 9 February 13.00 GMT
Scotland v England at Scotstoun, Glasgow 9 February 12.10 GMT
A lot has been happening in the short gap between rounds. Not least the appearance of Cath Spencer’s book Mud, Mascara Maul – that’s only half the original title; read on! – which had its launch in mid-week. You don’t need to be a reader of the Rugby Paper to know that this is a lady of very forthright views.
Let’s hope this becomes the first of a generation of books from players of a similar standing – though as an England captain, she doesn’t have many – telling the world what being at the top of this great sport means for the individual.
On the same day the entire French squad, led by Annick Hayraud, were received by the maire of Limoges (venue for their Italy clash) and presented with medals.
My thanks to Jess Breach and Zoe Harrison (at the Lensbury England press day) for answering questions with such patience and depth.
15. Chloe Rollie (Harlequins)
14. Rhona Lloyd (Loughborough Lightning)
13. Lisa Thomson (Darlington Mowden Park)
12. Helen Nelson (Loughborough Lightning)
11. Evie Tonkin (Darlington Mowden Park)
10. Sarah Law (Darlington Mowden Park)
9. Mairi McDonald (Hillhead Jordanhill)
1. Leah Bartlett (Loughborough Lightning)
2. Lana Skeldon (Darlington Mowden Park)
3. Mairi Forsyth (Corstorphine Cougars)
4. Emma Wassell (Corstorphine Cougars)
5. Sarah Bonar (Loughborough Lightning)
6. Rachel Malcolm (captain, Loughborough Lightning)
7. Rachel McLachlan (Darlington Mowden Park)
8. Jade Konkel (Harlequins)
16. Molly Wright (Watsonians)
17. Panashe Muzambe (Edinburgh University / Watsonians)
18. Lisa Cockburn (Darlington Mowden Park)
19. Siobhan Cattigan (Stirling County)
20. Louise McMillan (Hillhead Jordanhill)
21. Rachel Law (Edinburgh University)
22. Annabel Sergeant (Heriot’s Blues)
23. Alex Wallace (Harrogate)
Looking for stability, Philip Doyle makes only two changes to his starting XV: Sarah Law comes in at No 10 and Evie Tonkin on the left wing.
The pity for Scotland is that the schedule is about as unfavourable as it could get – two home games hosting France and England set against three away fixtures versus sides they might hope to beat at home. The four-point loss in Dublin showed how close they can come, but this week’s contest against the Red Roses will be on a different plane. Last year it was an 80-point drubbing. Even in front of their own crowd at Scotstoun, they can hardly hope for much better. Two years ago England managed ‘only’ 43 points. We can blame either ‘The Beast from the East’ or an excellent performance by the Thistles.
With the World Cup qualifiers creeping ever closer, players will sense the need to put down indelible markers.
Let’s pretend the French don’t make inscrutable selection changes. So the new-look team to play Italy is simply a matter of sharing out the load in a hard 5-match slog. Perhaps the reasoning was the same last year in Round 5 against Italy. There, a much-changed side took the field and lost heavily, letting the Azzurre win a totally unexpected second place.
But this time round…
Only three forwards retain their place: Audrey Forlani, Céline Ferer and Romane Ménager. It means that Safi N’Diaye takes over captaincy from Gaëlle Hermet who moves to the bench. Out behind just two players are retained, Cyrille Banet and Jessy Trémoulière, but Banet has to switch wings to accommodate Caroline Boujard on the right. Gabrielle Vernier, twice injured at Pau, sadly has to be non-starter.
The halves remain the same!
The one name added to replace Vernier is Marie-Aurélie Castel, the Stade Rennais back who benched in the Exeter match last autumn.
Two advantages the French have are a home fixture and the searing memory of that previous Italy match.
By contrast, the Welsh make minimal changes. They show two changes up front with new flankers Alisha Butchers and Manon Johnes. Out behind even less tinkering: the two wingers, Jasmine Joyce and Lisa Neumann swop numbers.
The Azzurre have been even more conservative – just one change, Valentina Ruzza coming in for Giordana Duco in the second row. It’s unlikely they can hold the French, but they are getting used to winning away.
The Girls in Green show three changes from last time. Judy Bobbett makes her debut at lock alongside Aoife McDermott. Kathryn Dane and Claire Keohane make a new pairing at half-back. Eimear Considine returns from injury to full-back, rather than the wing.
Ireland lost to Wales over the winter, so they know they will need to up their performance in the tournament that matters. And they have a World Cup qualifier ahead of them to worry about.
15. Emily Scott (Harlequins, 35 caps)
14. Abby Dow (Wasps, 10 caps)
13. Emily Scarratt (vice-captain, Loughborough Lightning, 86 caps)
12. Amber Reed (Bristol Bears, 54 caps)
11. Jess Breach (Harlequins, 22 caps)
10. Zoe Harrison (Saracens, 21 caps)
9. Natasha Hunt (Gloucester-Hartpury, 51 caps)
1. Vickii Cornborough (Harlequins, 50 caps)
2. Lark Davies (Loughborough Lightning, 23 caps)
3. Sarah Bern (Bristol Bears, 32 caps)
4. Poppy Cleall (Saracens, 37 caps)
5. Zoe Aldcroft (Gloucester-Hartpury, 17 caps)
6. Sarah Beckett (Harlequins, 14 caps)
7. Vicky Fleetwood (Saracens, 73 caps)
8. Sarah Hunter (captain, Loughborough Lightning, 120 caps)
16. Amy Cokayne (Harlequins, 47 caps)
17. Hannah Botterman (Saracens, 18 caps)
18. Shaunagh Brown (Harlequins, 14 caps)
19. Harriet Millar-Mills (Wasps, 52 caps)
20. Amelia Harper (Loughborough Lightning, 1 cap)
21. Claudia MacDonald (Wasps, 8 caps)
22. Katy Daley-Mclean (Loughborough Lightning, 111 caps)
23. Sarah McKenna (Saracens, 29 caps)
As expected, Simon Middleton has rung the changes to allow more players to get starting experience. But the ongoing shortage in the second row means Poppy Cleall and Zoe Aldcroft are needed again. Harriet Millar-Mills seems designated to relieve one of them – for the first time since 2017.
Leanne Riley is the one of the trio of No 9s to miss out this time.
The skipper has reached the dizzy heights of 120 caps.
Over the length of the 6 Nations the combined points totals read: England 883 Scotland 59. That is the vertical wall the Thistles have to climb.
The Red Roses squad looked to be in fine fettle at The Lensbury for a second successive Wednesday work-out. They said they were taking
each game step by step. Now where have we heard that before?
These variations in selection policy make the tournament all the more flavoursome and unpredictable. The management teams may have different concerns: the all-important qualification games next autumn, injuries, doubts over possible alternatives, the sequence of opponents they meet, and so on.
The Officials on duty are:
France v Italy
Referee: Hollie Davidson (Scotland)
ARs: Nikki O’Donnell (England) & Katherine Ritchie (England)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Scotland v England
Referee: Clara Munarini (Italy)
ARs: Aurélie Groizeleau (France) & Maria Giovanna Pacifico (Italy)
TMO: Stefano Penne (Italy)
Ireland v Wales
Referee: Aimee Barrett-Theron (South Africa)
ARs: Laura Pettingale (RFU) & Beatrice Benvenuti (Italy)
TMO: Neil Paterson (Scotland)