The Red Roses have completed an unbeaten year, thanks to the last kick of the last match.
Can we say they have completed an unbeaten season as well? That’s trickier, since in England we have had two seasons running concurrently. The 2020 Six Nations was completed on 1 November with the Round 5 game in Italy. Meanwhile the 2020-21 Allianz Premier 15s tournament had begun on 10 October.
This has been the most disrupted, painful and bizarre rugby year in living memory.
Here are a few thoughts on the way it turned out. First the bald facts:
Round One: France 13 England 19
Round Two Scotland 0 England 53
Round Three England 27 Ireland 0
Round Four England 66 Wales 7
Round Five Italy 0 England 54
France 10 England 33
England 25 France 23
Points for: 277
Points against: 53
For most of the year the Black Ferns ruled the roost. Back in February this was the picture:
New Zealand 93.88
But the Ferns have suffered from a total lack of playing time this year. If England could keep on winning, they were bound to overtake them. In November it happened:
New Zealand 93.88
When England last stood top of the tree (rankings were introduced in 2016), it was for a brief period in 2017, between the great away win in Rotorua and the World Cup final in Belfast.
For 80 minutes of the Red Roses’ final match of 2020, against France at Twickenham, it looked as though their hold on the top spot would be even briefer, a mere week. Then came Emily Scarratt’s nerveless penalty to clinch the game by two points.
The unsolved Problem – Professionalism
The Red Roses are still the only team on earth to be able to earn their living entirely from the game. That was the situation at the 2017 WRWC, it remains so in the run-up to the 2021 RWC.
Amateur versus professional can be fun in pro-am golf tournaments; less so in the hard world of rugby.
The devastating withdrawal of contracts for England’s men and women Sevens players had just one positive effect: it allowed the Red Roses to add some outstanding talent to their Fifteens side, led by the performances of Alex Matthews, Ellie Kildunne and Helena Rowland in the last three matches.
But Matthews’ revelations about her travails in adjusting to the sudden loss of her contract make disturbing reading.
So the twelve nations who hope to take part in the RWC next September will once more be unequal in the extreme: England: full-term professionals; France 50% professional; New Zealand also part-time, but in a land largely unaffected by the pandemic. The rest have to make do and mend. Playing standards remain obstinately wide. Once again the odds are firmly on the Black Ferns and Red Roses disputing the final at Eden Park.
Yet three times in the past eighteen months France have lost games to England by a harrowing two points. If you add together the time the Red Roses were finally in the lead in those games, it adds up to a bare eight minutes. So near and yet so far.
‘Three or four world-class players in every position’
This well-trumpeted wish of England head coach, Simon Middleton, brings its own problems.
There are precisely 30 place available on the plane to Auckland. But 15 x 3 = 45; 15 x 4 = 60. So there are going to be an awful lot of disappointed players left behind. They will have trained like fury, scored tries, made game-saving tackles, but are found surplus to requirements.
They claim they are well aware of the situation. It makes them play even harder.
Who plays where?
This is roughly how the positions fill out. Players are not placed in any order; some play regularly in different positions; some positions are often switched (wing, lock).
15 McKenna Kildunne Scott Dow Scarratt Abbie Brown
14 Breach Dow Thompson Smith Macdonald
13 Scarratt Tuima Reed Abbie Brown
12 Reed Harrison Jones Aitchison
11 Breach Dow Thompson Smith Macdonald McKenna
10 Daley-Mclean Harrison Rowland Aitchison
9 Hunt Riley Macdonald
1 Cornborough Botterman Perry Detysha Harper
2 Cokayne Davies Kerr Fleetwood
3 Bern Brown Keates Botterman Detysha Harper
4 Ward O’Donnell Poppy Cleall
5 Aldcroft Talling Millar-Mills
6 Poppy Cleall Beckett Matthews Millar-Mills
7 Packer Fleetwood Matthews Amelia Harper
8 Hunter Poppy Cleall Beckett Matthews Millar-Mills
When it comes to the bench, there is inequality in the positions they play. Replacement front-rows can be pretty sure of getting on the field; not so wingers. That is where versatility proves so vital.
Let’s look at one team-unit as an example, the back row: currently we have Beckett, Poppy Cleall, Fleetwood, Amelia Harper, Hunter, Marston, Matthews, Millar-Mills and Packer who have all played there in the past year. Of them Poppy Cleall and Harriet Millar-Mills have both appeared extensively in the second row (HM-M for every minute of the 2017 season). That might in itself be enough to reserve them a flight ticket. You might call single-position specialists one-trick ponies. They have to be outstanding to command that place.
A lot can happen in the intervening ten months. There is an entire 6N hovering on the near horizon. Then the RFU faces the dilemma of finding other opponents to face in the run-in to the World Cup. Their choices will be even more limited if they feel unable to afford an early visit down under. That was the hope pre-Covid.
Of the current training squad the following nineteen have already experienced rugby in the host country:
Sarah Bern, Amy Cokayne, Vickii Cornborough, Vicky Fleetwood, Sarah Hunter, Heather Kerr, Alex Matthews, Harriet Millar-Mills, Marlie Packer, Abbie Ward, Natasha Hunt, Megan Jones, Sarah McKenna, Katy Daley-Mclean, Amber Reed, Leanne Riley, Emily Scarratt, Emily Scott and Lydia Thompson.
It is a huge advantage that well over half the squad will not be visiting the most fervent of rugby nations for the first time.
How Times Change
It is astonishing how quickly fortunes can change.
Pauline Bourdon of France was twice nominated as World Player of the Year. In 2019 she looked like one of the great scrum-halves. This year she has been overtaken by Laure Sansus whose performances have been hailed far and wide as outstanding.
Amongst the Red Roses there have been at least two similar take-overs: Abby Dow has established herself as a first-class winger, blessed with skills far beyond mere pace. Her defence, kicking and support play have helped the side’s momentum throughout. It places Lydia Thompson’s inclusion in a final starting Fifteen in some jeopardy. Wingers rarely figure on the bench.
At full-back we must assume that Ellie Kildunne is now first choice. For as long as her 7s career doesn’t prevent an appearance in the World Cup, she is likely to take precedence over Sarah McKenna in the No 15 shirt.
Sadly both these advances have come – partly at least – thanks to longish injuries to distinguished players.
Inevitably our view of what is to come is shrouded in doubt. We can only hope that normality is soon restored. But over the past year players have learned to face disappointment and frustration. With any luck the Six Nations will be able to start in February and reach the conclusion denied to us this year.
The overall picture for the Red Roses is rosy. But it’s sensible to look at areas that could be improved. Scrummaging is still too iffy. The Black Ferns’ pack took charge in the second half of the Belfast final; their contribution proved decisive. It might again unless the English pack can sort out remaining technical weaknesses.
There have been games in recent seasons where the backs’ try-scoring skills have dried up. Then they have resorted to forward power to ensure the win. That may be possible against the Ferns, but we shouldn’t count on it.
Whatever the final choices, the Red Roses have offered their supporters a great performance throughout the year. In sun, snow and fog they have shown huge enthusiasm and skills in completing an unbeaten year.