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Bristol, you beaut, and three other England Six Nations talking points

By Liam Heagney
Marlie Packer addresses the post-game huddle in Bristol (Photo by Harry Trump/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

It’s a surprise to no one that England are two from two in their latest Guinness Six Nations campaign. Not since a round four trip to Grenoble in March 2018 have the serial winners been beaten in the tournament – and even on that occasion there was just a point in it as France only edged it 18-17.

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Saturday’s defeat of Wales means they have now won 26 championship games on the bounce since then, an incredibly consistent run where the target is to get to 29 Ws by the end of this April and collect their sixth successive championship title.

Given all this repeated success it will sound odd that they have plenty of work to do yet regarding perfecting the latest iteration of their game. Here are the RugbyPass talking points about what unfolded at Ashton Gate.

Bumper Bristol attendance
Before we get stuck into the mechanics of the England display, the first topic that demands acknowledgment is the Ashton Gate attendance of 19,705. Sports teams who predictably win their matches aren’t supposed to be increasingly attractive.

Instead, it usually becomes more difficult to keep the fans coming along as there is no sense of jeopardy about what occurs on the field of play.

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There is a growing allure, though, about these Red Roses and there is every chance that the sport of women’s rugby will be in full bloom when England host the 2025 Rugby World Cup in 17 months.

Saturday’s crowd was a record for a non-Twickenham England home game and Bristol provided the perfect backdrop. The city centre had a lovely lunchtime atmosphere with rugby jerseys spotted everywhere and that family-friendly ambiance continued out in BS3.

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Ashton Gate is one of eight venues on the RWC roster and if the popularity of this weekend’s round two championship match is an indication of what is to come, women’s rugby is set for a record-breaking treat next year when the 16-team finals gets started. We can’t wait.

Nit-picking the W
Now onto the nit-picking. A cursory glance at the Six Nations table would suggest that everything is hunky dory with England. Two wins, 10 points, first place – what’s not to like? The thing is they are trending downwards when their head-to-head results so far this year are compared to 2023.

A dozen tries were put on Italy in a 68-5 rout last year at Northampton while Wales leaked nine tries in a 59-3 hammering in Cardiff. That’s 127 points scored, including 21 tries, and only eight points conceded.

This time around with the games respectively taking place in Parma and Bristol, England’s strike rate has been reduced to 94 points, 33 fewer, their 16-try tally is five less than in 2023 while they have also conceded 10 points, two more than in the corresponding fixtures a year ago.

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There has been plenty of talk about the desire for expansion in their attack, to use the edges a lot more and not be so heavily dependent on their rolling maul as they were at the World Cup in New Zealand where they agonizingly came up short in the final in November 2022.

Just one maul try was scored on Saturday, Lark Atkin-Davies driving over in first-half additional time for the four-try bonus point score. It was a finely executed move that no one can quibble with, but the added emphasis on moving the ball is causing them sloppy spillage.

Yes, they managed to reduce the number of handling errors from 28 in Parma to 16 in Bristol, but that is still way too many for a team as excellent as England. For instance, there can be no excuse for how Tatyana Heard knocked on a breadbasket pass in her 22 with no marker hunting her down.

That gave Wales the scrum they turned into lead-taking penalty points, and discipline was another frustration as England lost out on the penalty count 15-9. That’s a naughty rate of concession that must be curbed heading to Scotland.

On the plus side, England pummeled Wales by 15-2 linebreaks and 13-1 offloads, and their ability to transition quickly from their 22 and stretch the Welsh defence on the counter was a key factor in crucially making the half-time scoreline 24-3. It threatened to be much closer, such was the amount of time the visitors had on the ball in the red zone.

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Marlie and me
The Ashton Gate press box is very high in the clouds but what you lose in not being close up to the action, you gain in the panoramic perspective that the view affords of the action from afar.

There were times when you noticed Marlie Packer being slow to her feet and the play having moved quite a distance away, but she is such a shrewd operator that her canny knack of being in the right place at the right time when the next important breakdown happened was clear to see.

Also evident was her unerring ability to repeatedly make the right decision. We’ll highlight two class examples. Firstly, there was the slick way she spun backwards in the eighth-minute tackle near halfway.

That repositioning bought her an invaluable couple of seconds to twist and toss a sweet offload to wheels merchant Abby Dow in the lead-up to England’s first try before the second tackler pounced to take Packer to the ground.

Secondly, she was so defensively robust throughout. It was her streetwise intervention that caused the valuable turnover in her 22 that led to England going from being under the pump and potentially getting pegged to 12-10 to instead jumping 19-3 clear as that possession won ignited the move for the Hannah Botterman score.

You simply can’t buy experience in this game and the craft Packer exhibited in Saturday’s contest when it was there to be won was a delight to watch from on high. She was also all smiles when leading her team in from the pre-game bus and her warmth towards the fans was genuine. That is worth its PR weight in gold.

The ‘new’ Mitch
Kiwi John Mitchell is now two games into his first head coaching job since 2018 when he finished up his single season with the Bulls in South Africa to go and work as an assistant for Eddie Jones’ England.

Other assistant roles with Wasps and Japan followed after he and Jones went in different directions, and he was a surprise name when chosen to succeed Simon Middleton as the English women’s coach.

In a sport that is constantly evolving, six years away from running the show is a considerable chunk of time not to be calling the shots so how England develop on his watch with be monitored with forensic detail.

He has tended to be involved in too many intense coaching set-ups, dating back to his joyless spell more than 20 years ago as the All Blacks head coach. Making players nervous isn’t a good trait, so his relationship with Packer and co will be critical to success in his latest role.

Some of his post-game soundbites in Bristol encouragingly suggested he might be mellowing in his ways. The word fun got a mention, accompanied by a smile. So too did the word trust.

“The girls trust me and they trust themselves,” he suggested, “which is the biggest connection you can create when you are trying to I guess extend your game or asking the girls to go to places where they haven’t been before and back themselves.”

Only time will tell how this ‘biggest connection’ eventually turns out. For now, the early indications are positive.

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Poorfour 105 days ago

I don’t think we should set too much store by the slight narrowing of the scoreline; compared to last year, the other teams have more professional players and better setups so we should expect them to provide stiffer competition. And on the other hand, England have a new coaching regime and are experimenting in squad selection.

I also wasn’t overly worried by the penalty count, although it was very frustrating. The ref seemed to be allowing Wales a lot more leeway - I lost count of the number of times they were allowed to lie on the wrong side and slow the ball down. That’s tolerable when there’s a big gap between the sides (and as a measure of how far ahead England are, the only teams they can currently take ranking points from are France and Canada away and the Black Ferns), but you’d hope for a more even application in a more balanced game.

What’s worrying for the opposition is just how much England left on the park. England’s backs in particular seemed to lack a sense of when to back themselves and when to pass to keep a break alive. Both France and Wales showed a better offloading game yesterday - but England’s organisation in defence and power near the goal line ultimately told.

With Scotland v France being such a close game, both sides will be looking to cause England problems, but given how easily England dispatched Wales, and the improvement between the Italy and Wales games, whether England win another Grand Slam looks to be largely in their own hands.

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