We thought the events of a fortnight ago were pretty extreme, but the breaking news from Milan put them firmly in perspective. The Italian Prime Minister ordered an extensive ban on sports matches in Northern Italy as the coronavirus menace cost two lives in the locality.
So the Italy-Scotland game had to be postposed, Scotland’s second disappointment on the trot. We await news of the new arrangements.
The other two games survived, and the leaders of the pack, England and France, left their opponents, Ireland and Wales, empty-handed.
England v Ireland
A full house of 5,000 saw the sun shining brightly despite a strong wind. England get off to a positive start similar to their effort in Pau. Katy Daley-Mclean kicked deep to the right corner, and the Irish were put straight under the cosh. They just managed to stop Jess Breach short of the line on the far side, but a subsequent scrum relieved doubts about the Red Roses’ pushing power. Sarah Hunter achieved the first try inside three minutes.
As Ireland built a promising attack, the power of English tackles made itself felt. For at least the third time in recent internationals an opponent was forced to leave the field early. In this case it was Lindsey Peat, a loss Ireland could barely afford. Their plight was heightened when a fluent move by the England backs allowed Abby Dow a second 2-metre dot-down of the series – her fourth try.
Jess Breach reached the 22nd try of her test career with a sharp hand-off, on the end of a move seen several times this season: KD-M ran a switch with Emily Scarratt; on this occasion she managed an off-load to ensure the ball could move on smoothly left.
Just before the break the pack reinforced its supremacy with a drive finished off by Vicky Fleetwood. That was the bonus point gained.
Simon Middleton confessed after the game that he couldn’t understand what went wrong in the second half. He would have to investigate closely; in his opinion it was one of England’s weakest performances in recent years. Yes, their defence never came under dire threat, but on the other hand they managed only a single try across the 40 minutes.
It was completed by Sarah McKenna, finishing the one really decisive thrust. Scarratt’s conversion fought the wind but still pranged against the outside of the near post.
This was a great tribute to Irish resilience; they showed huge determination, but with the scrum under pressure, they had limited chances to set their backs free.
And misfortune hit them again when Sene Naoupu, their charismatic centre, became the second player to have to leave the pitch on a stretcher.
This second long gap in play increased the sense of aimlessness. That may seem harsh on players still offering their all, but the crowd will remember few moments of that half with pleasure and warmth.
At least it allowed Detysha Harper to make her debut after two non-playing attendances at matches before Christmas. With Amelia Harper replacing Fleetwood, it made a great day for the clan Harper – though the two players are not related.
England’s defence was so pervasive that it seemed as though every Irish ball-carrier was met with a double tackle. Any defensive coach would be pleased with that showing.
Middleton spoke highly of his two locks, Zoe Aldcroft and Poppy Cleall, who began the series as short-term stand-ins for Abbie Scott and Cath O’Donnell, but who have proved their worth with great displays. He has a high regard too for Abby Dow; but when in the next breath he called Lydia Thompson world-class, we can see the tricky choices he will have to make some time in the future. Both she and Kelly Smith are evidently match-fit again.
Result: England 27 Ireland 0
Referee: Hollie Davidson (SRU)
Player of the Match: Zoe Aldcroft
Wales v France
After their initial loss to England in the first round, the French have been in no mood for small mercies. At the Arms Park they took the game by the scruff of the neck and held it there. Unlike England, they turned up the heat in the second half to register five further tries.
It took Cyrielle Banet four minutes to post the visitors’ first try. She is another winger gaining a reputation for high-class finishing. This try started way back up the field. Wales fought back well but couldn’t find the final clinching pass.
On half an hour Laure Sansus reminded us of her prowess with another snap try round a scrum. Banet claimed her second, but this time from the current favourite method, the cross-kick.
The French pack had their first reward when Safi N’Diaye powered over. Sansus added yet another try close to a forward drive.
Into the last quarter and Marine Mènager and Julie Annery both went over to emphasise the gulf in class. When Camille Boudaud completed the last try of the day, it brought up a half-century for les Bleues.
Happy as they will be with this performance, that opening hiccup against England has taken the gloss of this season’s achievements. Their attention will turn towards more distant goals, like a desperately desired World Cup success.
As for Wales, the story of their lack of tackling practice seems beyond belief – until we count up the number of tackles they fell off during this encounter. Of course, if you don’t give the opposition the ball, you don’t need to bring off a single tackle. But that happens only in the Land of Wishful Thoughts. Lucky for them that they have already secured their place in the next World Cup.
Result: Wales 0 France 50
Referee: Nikki O’Donnell (RFU)
Player of the Match: Pauline Bourdon
Table after 3 (incomplete) Rounds:
P W Pts
England 3 3 14
France 3 2 11
Ireland 3 2 9
Italy 2 1 4
Scotland 2 0 1
Wales 3 0 1