Source: INPHO/ Women’s 6 Nations

England put World Cup disappointment behind them

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If there was at all a question about how this record-setting English side would respond to a rare defeat, then Saturday evening’s Six Nations opener provided an emphatic answer as the Red Roses settled back in with typical efficiency and ruthless edge.

There were reasons to believe that England’s Women’s Six Nations opener might be a trickier affair, with an emotional curtain call for their own angel of the north dominating the day and a number of new combinations to bed in. A spritely Scottish side travelled with optimism they could cause trouble, and who knows how the visitors’ confidence might have swelled had Emma Orr’s reach extended half-a-foot further for what could have been a levelling score early on.

But after Orr fell short, England asserted their ascendancy in familiar manner. The aim in Simon Middleton’s camp ahead of this campaign has been to “grow the gap” they felt had been established before the World Cup. As other nations follow the RFU’s lead in professionalising their women’s structures, it can be easy to forget that the Red Roses remain a young programme, with a genuine sense that there is more to come.

Part of the side’s next step is an intention to play more expansively, with clear glimpses of evolution to that end on show at Kingston Park. Injury may have forced Middleton’s hand but Holly Aitchison’s installation at fly-half at some point during this Six Nations was always in the works to try and further refine an attack that presents different pictures to the opposition.

With England’s forwards so dominant, of course the foundations were well laid to allow Aitchison a comfortable first outing internationally in the role, but this was an encouraging start from the Saracens playmaker. While the English front row attacked their visitors on Scottish feed, on England’s put-in the emphasis was on stability, allowing the hosts’ backs to move the ball to width swiftly. Combined with close to faultless attacking breakdown detail, it left Scotland unable to at all stymie or stall England, with Aitchison providing neat facilitating hands throughout.

“We’ll pick it apart in this coming week, but I enjoyed it, which is the main thing, and [it was] a good win for the girls as well,” Aitchison said afterwards.

“I’m not too well versed in the scrum but it was really stable and a great platform for us to play off as backs. That was super pleasing to have that stability.

“We spoke in the week about showing something different, playing a bit wider than you would normally see from us. We definitely did that today.”

Aitchison was the first player not named Katy Daley-Mclean, Zoe Harrison or Helena Rowland to wear an England ten shirt in almost six years. The starter at fly-half then was Amber Reed, positioned outside Aitchison in Newcastle and returning to the England fold after missing out on the World Cup squad.

The Bristol centre is still exceptionally well regarded as both a player and leader by England’s coaches, and it was a great shame to see a player who has suffered so significantly with injury limp off before the interval. The loss of her steadying presence briefly threatened to destabilise England’s new-look midfield, but it speaks to England’s depth that they could call upon Tatyana Heard, a standout during the World Cup, from the bench.

“They are both quality players,” Aitchison said of Reed and Heard. “They both offer that crash, hard runner, as well as having unreal hands. We didn’t really have to adjust that much.

“You are always prepared for injuries to happen. We did lose Amber early, which was so sad, I’m gutted for her, and hopefully it is nothing too major. But getting [Tatyana Heard] on the pitch earlier is only a positive as well. We just did the same things, didn’t really need to change anything. The gameplan kind of came through and everything was good.

“We are pretty much a new squad over the last three weeks, so we’ve had a really short amount of time together. We will look at Italy’s game against France and see what they bring, but there will be a lot more emphasis on us and putting the few things that went wrong today right next week.”

Aitchison also reserved a final word for the departing Sarah Hunter: “I cannot speak highly enough of that woman. She is just such a special player and person. I’ve never been in a squad that has had such an amazing leader. She is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. She’s ridiculously empathetic but also ruthless at the same time.

“For her to have that special send-off in her hometown, where she grew up playing – it’s the stuff of fairytales, isn’t it? Not many people get to sign off their career like that. It is a testament to her and testament to everything she has achieved.”