England duly beat Scotland at Doncaster to gain maximum reward, but the margin of victory, 42 points, marks the progress the visitors have made since their last raid south, an 80-0 drubbing.
Eight tries to one looks like one-way traffic, but it wasn’t. Scottish resilience and English indiscipline meant several spells of backs-to-the-wall for the Red Roses. A total of 14 penalties against is far too reminiscent of the men’s team.
They go off to a promising start with fine interlinking, but it took them nine minutes to find the try-line; Marlie Packer drove over after both Clealls helped to find an opening.
Leanne Riley was the beneficiary as she spotted a tiny gap close to the line. At this stage you feared the quality of England’s interplay would lead to another rout. But no, Scotland pressed hard and were rewarded with a penalty by Helen Nelson. (12-3) The pity was a series of pick-and-goes didn’t bring them a 5-pointer.
Lark Davies added to her vast haul of tries this season on the back of a laser-guided catch-and-drive. (19-3) And the game swung firmly against Scotland in the ten minutes to the break. First Bryony Cleall had the extreme pleasure of claiming a second try in her second test match, two years after the first.
The first of several cards was brandished at Lisa Thomson to make her side’s job far harder.
England finished the half with one of their few dazzling moves: Helena Rowland cross-kicked to Jess Breach who set off on one of those mesmeric runs which reveal her outstanding footwork as much as her pace. Ask Chloe Rollie.
After the break a second lovely move saw Rowland benefit from fine work by Zoe Aldcroft and Breach to score her debut try for her country. (40-3)
But now Scotland really showed their improvement. Benefiting from a yellow for Poppy Cleall, they mounted a series of attacks. Their confidence showed as they opted for a scrum at a penalty and had their reward. After multiple drives and resulting penalties against the hosts Hannah Smith found her way over the line. Nelson converted (40-10)
The following period didn’t look good for England. Aurélie Groizeleau reached for her yellow card again as Davies tackled too high, and she had an urgent word with Emily Scarratt.
Fortunes wheeled as Molly Wright, only recently introduced as a sub was red-carded for a shoulder to Vickii Cornborough’s head. So play was reduced in stages to 14v15, 13v15 and 14v14 – a sign of current concerns about player welfare, but very disruptive to any game’s flow.
With Scotland permanently reduced to 14 England could take firm charge again. Even so, they didn’t exactly run away with it. They scored two further tries, a second for Poppy Cleall, then a penalty try awarded by Groizeleau after intense pressure.
Final score: 52-10
Player of the Match: Poppy Cleall
15. Sarah McKenna (Saracens)
14. Lydia Thompson (Worcester Warriors)
13. Emily Scarratt (captain; Loughborough Lightning)
12. Lagi Tuima (Harlequins)
11. Jess Breach (Harlequins)
10. Helena Rowland (Loughborough Lightning)
9. Leanne Riley (Harlequins)
1. Vickii Cornborough (Harlequins)
2. Lark Davies (Loughborough Lightning)
3. Bryony Cleall (Saracens)
4. Abbie Ward (Harlequins)
5. Cath O’Donnell (Loughborough Lightning)
6. Zoe Aldcroft (Gloucester-Hartpury)
7. Marlie Packer (Saracens)
8. Poppy Cleall (Saracens)
16. Amy Cokayne (Harlequins)
17. Detysha Harper (Loughborough Lightning)
18. Shaunagh Brown (Harlequins)
19. Harriet Millar-Mills (Wasps)
20. Vicky Fleetwood (Saracens)
21. Claudia MacDonald (Wasps)
22. Megan Jones (Wasps)
23. Ellie Kildunne (Wasps)
15. Chloe Rollie (Harlequins)
14. Rachel Shankland (Stirling County)
13. Hannah Smith (Watsonians)
12. Lisa Thomson (unattached)
11. Megan Gaffney (Heriots)
10. Helen Nelson (Loughborough Lightning)
9. Mairi McDonald (Hillhead Jordanhill)
1. Leah Bartlett (Loughborough Lightning)
2. Lana Skeldon (unattached)
3. Christine Belisle (Cartha Queens Park)
4. Emma Wassell (Corstorphine Cougars)
5. Louise McMillan (Hillhead Jordanhill)
6. Rachel Malcolm (captain, Loughborough Lightning)
7. Rachel McLachlan (unattached)
8. Siobhan Cattigan (Stirling County)
16. Molly Wright (Watsonians)
17. Panashe Muzambe (Edinburgh University/Watsonians)
18. Lisa Cockburn (Darlington Mowden Park)
19. Evie Gallagher (Stirling County)
20. Jodie Rettie (Saracens)
21. Jenny Maxwell (Loughborough Lightning)
22. Sarah Law (unattached)
23. Liz Musgrove (unattached)
Referee: Aurélie Groizeleau (FFR)
Assistant referee 1: Beatrice Benvenuti (FIR)
Assistant referee 2: Maria Pacifico (FIR)
TMO: Joy Neville (IRFU)
Rowland was given the first chance to wear the No 10 shirt. She is formidably gifted, but you could see the learning processes she must still go through. Two attempted cross-kicks early on both flew into touch, leaving Lydia Thompson underemployed, and relieving kicks didn’t all gain the ground she is capable of reaching.
Poppy Cleall had another quite immense game. She has such a wide range of skills to add to her physical presence. Her one weakness was exposed again today, her old penchant for the yellow card.
Lagi Tuima had the tricky job of fitting in at No 12 where she has played recently only when Rachael Burford has been injured. A set move involving Breach tracking across to run outside the centres twice faltered as Tuima’s pass failed to make contact. Middleton may well prefer more reliability in a handling game than she can provide at the moment.
Placing Zoe Aldcroft at blind-side merely proved what a treasure-house of talent England possess in the back row. She put in another magnificent performance. Not needed today were Sarah Hunter, Alex Matthews and Sarah Beckett, to name but three.
The introduction of the replacements didn’t bring the sort of surge we have grown used to. Handling grew more iffy and the pitch magically grew narrower as space wasn’t created in midfield. Let’s hope the benchers weren’t so concerned about making the most of the few minutes left to them that they grew hasty in their decision-making.
A personal grouse: I have been lucky enough to see Wasps performing several times this season, I am not the only observer to believe that Meg Jones is the outstanding back in the current Prem 15s. But when she came on, it was in the centre, as if the selectors have decided to leave the No 10 shirt to a ding-dong between Rowland and Zoe Harrison.
That notion is entirely unproven of course. We won’t know the management’s deepest thoughts till later in the tournament, perhaps not even then. And doors may still be left open after April. So much depends on an unpredictable future, not least the progress of the GB Sevens programme.
Scotland will be pleased with many aspects of their game. The line-out in particular went far better than in recent seasons, thanks to accurate throws and Emma Wassall’s command in the middle of the line.
To my mind their recurrent failure is to realign effectively at the breakdown. As last year, the forwards worked manfully to win good ball, only to see the backs quite unable to string three passes together before an error. There was no Rhona Lloyd on the wing today, but their other flyer, Rollie, was hardly given a single chance to show her speed in space.
It will be instructive to see the analysts’ figures for the number of times the backs crossed the gain-line to let their forwards advance on to the ball.
But their overall performance leaves their meeting with Italy wide open.