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‘And so? I’ll have to play': How Sophie Ellis-Bextor unwittingly previewed Red Roses vs Ireland

By Claire Thomas
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: The forwards during a England Red Roses Training Session at Twickenham Stadium on April 18, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

At half time on Saturday, Sophie Ellis-Bextor – looking utterly fabulous, and oozing vanilla-scented schmaltz like a particularly girly Lush bath bomb – will fizz onto the pitch at Twickenham and perform ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’.

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It’s going to be a riot – a joyful extravaganza of face-splitting smiles and the sort of dance moves usually only bust out when home alone and tidying the kitchen. A bona fide boppy banger with a feel-good factor of 117 BPM. I can’t wait.

The question is: will the afternoon’s real murder have already taken place? Will there be any life left in this fixture by the forty-minute mark? The Red Roses are the most lethal team in rugby – killing grooves, burning houses down, and proving anyone wrong who thinks they can get away – and, unfortunately, this one comes with the sense of inevitability which remains this competition’s deepest flaw.

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That said, Saturday has the makings of England’s toughest assignment yet. Packer and co. will get the job done eventually, but – as Ellis-Bextor struts her stuff – there’ll definitely be twists and turns still to come. Claudia Winkleman, lurking in the tunnel beneath several inches of kohl and extortionate knitwear, will have to bide her time before delivering news of this particular murder.

Put bluntly – the Red Roses will win this Test match, because they are significantly better than anyone else in the Six Nations. They’ve scored 140 points and conceded ten. They have the best line-out and a near-faultless scrum. They have an eye-watering average ruck speed of 2.8 seconds, and they eat gain line for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

They’ve done all of this despite terrible place-kicking and a concerning lack of discipline. They’ll be playing at home, in front of over 45,000, and in pretty perfect conditions for the rampaging rugby they’re deploying this campaign. ‘I’ll blow you all away – hey.’

Ireland, though, have impressed enough so far to promise a tussle – and gave the Grand Slam champions a proper rattle last year in Cork. The 0-48 scoreline suggests otherwise, but the beleaguered, wooden spoon-destined home side drew England into an unwanted scrap – and eked their worst performance of the tournament out of them. 23 handling errors, a relatively measly 2.5 points per entry, and a – *gasp* – scoreless third quarter.

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‘The breakdown was a right mess,’ a frustrated Mo Hunt told the press pack who’d pondered whether or not Simon Middleton’s side would stick 100 on their green-clad victims… Far from it.

Niggly, but well-beaten in 2023. In 2024? A vastly different prospect. Winning WXV3 provided time together and momentum, if not much genuine competition, and they’ve been on an upward trajectory since. They had a bit of a free hit in France, which they used to reintegrate their 7s athletes and give both Nicole Fowley and Dannah O’Brien time at stand-off, before missing an opportunity the following week versus Italy.

Their collective response against Wales spoke volumes – as did Edel McMahon’s cool assessment of that thumping victory. In round three, she said, they executed the processes they’ve been developing since Scott Bemand’s appointment, ‘and the result pretty much took care of itself.

We enjoyed it, but we’ve already refocussed ahead of the next one – and have really gone after training this week.’ They’ll be huge underdogs at Twickenham, but the quiet confidence of Ireland’s skipper reminded us that the hunted can go hunting, too.

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They’ll have to: you can’t sit back and wait to see what the Red Roses will do. Just ask Sophie. ‘I know (I know, I know, I know, I know, I know, I know) about your kind. And so (and so, and so, and so, and so, and so, and so) I’ll have to play.’ Ireland have demonstrated recently that they’re increasingly good at doing just that.

They’re second in the standings for metres made, line breaks, and tackle busts – and behind only England and France for offloads, tries, and carries over the advantage line. They relish turnover ball, some of their handling against the Welsh was sumptuous, and they’ve have had six individuals cross the whitewash already.

They’re also, under new defence coach Declan Danaher, increasingly robust without possession: operating with accuracy, dominance, and discipline. Centre Aoife Dalton has spoken about how much they’ve come to relish this element of their game, and that they’ve even surprised themselves with their own physicality. Against the Red Roses, they’ll need all of that hunger and cohesion.

Personnel-wise, Bemand’s assembled a squad blending fearless youngsters, relentless 7s operators (history-makers in Perth, remember), and Premiership standouts. O’Brien’s pinpoint off the tee, and always seems to have so much time to lash the ball upfield or select her passing option. Aoife Wafer has been a revelation in the back row, where Brittany Hogan is quietly growing in stature.

Spend five minutes watching just Christy Haney go about her business if you want to feel utterly exhausted – or Aoibheann Reilly, who’s brought such zip to proceedings – and allow yourself a moment to appreciate that this squad boasts both Neve Jones and Cliodhna Moloney. There won’t be a better hooking duo named this weekend: guaranteed.

What’s a colossal shame is the absence of Sam Monaghan, not yet recovered from her heroics against Wales, who’s already barrelled her way to the top of the carry charts despite missing the opening round. The lock’s sensational – British & Irish Lions levels of sensational – and they’ll feel her loss keenly. They certainly did last week, when their line out crumbled and output slowed as soon as she came off the field.

No Monaghan, then – but a real coup in the IP stakes. In her resurgent anthem, the 2008 face of Rimmel London warns us not to ‘steal the moves’, but Scott Bemand – who spent almost a decade in a rose-embroidered tracksuit – is going to use every ounce of inside scoop to undermine his former side. ‘We know what we’re up against,’ he said this week with an impish grin, ‘and know a few areas of the field where we can put the ball – and maybe cause them some problems.’

It won’t be enough to derail John Mitchell’s world number ones, but Bemand’s scouting report will be encyclopaedic, and those little nuggets might just buy Ireland the odd metre, second, or fistful of white jersey.

Thanks to Barry Keoghan’s sociopathic smoulder, Sophie Ellis-Bextor is back. Thanks to a squad chock-full of talent and desire, and a newfound clarity, so are Ireland. England never went anywhere, nor will they allow their Grand Slam tilt to come unstuck before the tens of thousands descending upon Twickenham.

But, as the pop princess said when asked about her triumphant return to the charts, ‘you have to be open to the unexpected’, and Saturday’s fixture will be well worth watching: these cohesive, confident women in green will have a few moves of their own, for sure.

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D
Diarmid 10 hours ago
Players and referees must cut out worrying trend in rugby – Andy Goode

The guy had just beasted himself in a scrum and the blood hadn't yet returned to his head when he was pushed into a team mate. He took his weight off his left foot precisely at the moment he was shoved and dropped to the floor when seemingly trying to avoid stepping on Hyron Andrews’ foot. I don't think he was trying to milk a penalty, I think he was knackered but still switched on enough to avoid planting 120kgs on the dorsum of his second row’s foot. To effectively “police” such incidents with a (noble) view to eradicating play acting in rugby, yet more video would need to be reviewed in real time, which is not in the interest of the game as a sporting spectacle. I would far rather see Farrell penalised for interfering with the refereeing of the game. Perhaps he was right to be frustrated, he was much closer to the action than the only camera angle I've seen, however his vocal objection to Rodd’s falling over doesn't legitimately fall into the captain's role as the mouthpiece of his team - he should have kept his frustration to himself, that's one of the pillars of rugby union. I appreciate that he was within his rights to communicate with the referee as captain but he didn't do this, he moaned and attempted to sway the decision by directing his complaint to the player rather than the ref. Rugby needs to look closely at the message it wants to send to young players and amateur grassroots rugby. The best way to do this would be to apply the laws as they are written and edit them where the written laws no longer apply. If this means deleting laws such as ‘the put in to the scrum must be straight”, so be it. Likewise, if it is no longer necessary to respect the referee’s decision without questioning it or pre-emptively attempting to sway it (including by diving or by shouting and gesticulating) then this behaviour should be embraced (and commercialised). Otherwise any reference to respecting the referee should be deleted from the laws. You have to start somewhere to maintain the values of rugby and the best place to start would be giving a penalty and a warning against the offending player, followed by a yellow card the next time. People like Farrell would rapidly learn to keep quiet and let their skills do the talking.

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