Source: INPHO/Women’s 6 Nations

England dominate despite lengthy injury list

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The gap remains uncomfortably large between England and most of the other sides in this competition, but at least the depth of the Women’s Six Nations favourites has been tested in this campaign. Ahead of their second round fixture against Italy, which was won with real command despite a slightly clunky start from Simon Middleton’s side, England’s summation of their total list of absentees came to 19.

For any other nation, the absence of more than half a squad would surely be fatal to their hopes of assembling a challenge, but onwards England roll. That they are still able to dominate in such a manner is an issue for the growth of the sport, of course, but shows that investment pays dividends. While the Rugby Football Union’s early adoption of professional contracts is more often pointed to as the springboard to their monopoly of this tournament, the introduction and development of the Premier 15s has been just as, if not more, important.

The domestic league gives English players a proving ground providing week-in, week-out rugby against the best players in the world. To standout in the Premier 15s you have to be international class – and that gives Middleton the confidence that even those on the fringes of his squad are ready to step up to test level.

At no position have England’s options been worn away more than at prop. Of the eight named in Middleton’s World Cup training squad last summer, only Sarah Bern was available for this second Six Nations game.

Against Scotland, Mackenzie Carson, Liz Crake and Kelsey Clifford made international debuts, which spoke part to England’s missing players but also to the trust the coaching staff have in them. The hosts were still firmly on top at scrum time against Italy, just as they were in Newcastle a week ago.

It helps, too, to have a weapon like Bern still at your disposal. England are missing many high-class options but Bern is their prop idol, a bulldozer with a ballet dancer’s feet. The Bristol Bear does not have many bad games in an England shirt but this felt superlative even by her standards. 14 carries, 138 metres, three offloads and two try assists – for an outside back, the numbers would be ridiculous; for a tighthead prop, they are bordering on obscene.

“She’s our fourth back-three player,” Middleton joked afterwards. “We try to get our most dangerous runners in space and Bern is one of them.

“We don’t paint by numbers. It depends who is in that area. She likes running in space. She’s such a destructive player when she’s got the ball in her hands, and such a good decision-maker.”

Bern’s two moments of try-providing distribution showed her intelligence, waiting until the right moment to put Claudia MacDonald and Abby Dow in. For all her wrecking ball qualities, it is the 25-year-old’s intelligence that has helped drive into indisputably the premier prop in the world.

Raised a centre, Bern moved into the back row later in her teen years and looked destined for an international future at the position. But Matt Ferguson, formerly England forwards coach and now overseeing the scrum at Northampton, recognised her potential in the front row, convincing her to convert ahead of the 2017 World Cup. Bern has not looked back since – though her all-round performance at Franklin’s Gardens shows how much of skillset that remains.

“I love attacking and if I can get the opportunity to get my hands on the ball, it is probably the thing I enjoy most about rugby,” Bern explained.

“It is one of those days where the opportunities were in the wider channels. A lot of it is down to our injuries – my role has slightly changed. As a whole forward pack, we’ve got some of the best ball handlers and carriers in the world.

“It’s exciting to play this attacking style of rugby. It’s something we took from the World Cup that we wanted to work on. I’m just really happy with how England are playing at the minute.”