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Red mist and three other talking points after England 'nil' Scotland

By Liam Heagney
England's Megan Jones, Jess Breach, Maud Muir and Ellie Kildunne celebrate (Photo by Jan Kruger/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Fair play to women’s rugby. Rather than indomitable England’s lengthy winning streak of 27 strangle interest in the Guinness Six Nations, there continues to be an across-the-championship growth in the tournament.

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Scotland on Saturday was another example, the sold-out attendance of 7,774 being double the 3,988 at the Hive when England previously visited Edinburgh in 2022. If there is a worry it’s that the media surrounding them isn’t consistent.

The small Ashton Gate media room on Easter Saturday was busy with a double-figure body count in attendance to hear what John Mitchell and Marlie Packer had to say about the round two win over Wales.

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In Scotland, though, there were just two journalists in attendance – including RugbyPass – when the head coach and round three skipper Zoe Aldcroft arrived for their debrief. It was a reminder that England aren’t the same drawcard on the Six Nations road that they are for their home games.

Normal service will, of course, be resumed next weekend when they host Ireland at Twickenham in front of another bumper five-figure fan attendance.

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That will be cool, but the limited media in Edinburgh highlighted how there is still a battle to be won for journalistic interest on days when the women’s code directly competes with men’s action for sports section budget. Here are some other England talking points coming out of Scotland with a 46-0 win:

Red mist… again
It would be easy to cheerlead and go what another wonderful big win for England. But let’s not beat around the bush: one area where they must sharply improve is their discipline.

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They, for sure, don’t need reminding that it was a red card in Auckland that ultimately tipped the scales in favour of New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final, and 18 months later they have collected two reds in three Guinness Six Nations games. That’s poor.

These sending-offs for Sarah Beckett – a croc roll in Italy – and Amy Cokayne – yellows for tackling through the horizontal and shoulder-to-the-head contact in Scotland – were very avoidable.

Being a player short didn’t hinder their team when it came to winning as both matches against opposition that they traditionally beat well were won by comfortable margins. But that isn’t the point.

The concern must be what happens if some more naughty step behaviour materialises in Bordeaux on April 27 when England look to seal the Grand Slam versus France and become six in a row Six Nations champions.

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Aside from the cards, they have a penalty problem. While the total concession was only six in Italy, it was 15 at home to Wales and 13 away to Scotland. Anything in double figures must be called out, especially in games where they are dominating the scoreboard and shouldn’t be infringing as much.

If they get the wrong side of referee Maggie Cogger-Orr, they could potentially be in danger of falling to their first championship loss since the 2018 reverse in Grenoble against the French.

Regarding Saturday’s Cokayne red, Mitchell initially said he had no complaint yet went to query the severity of the first carded incident. “No. At the end of the day, we encourage the girls to play around the edge. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t. Amy has just come back.

“I guess it just creates awareness for all of us that we got to make sure we get our tackle height right. I thought her first card was a little bit difficult because the player did return to safety in that instance, so it probably deserved a penalty but yeah, we will learn from the tackle height.”

Here’s hoping.

Handbrake on
There is no quibble that when they click, England are beautiful to watch. Just look at the impromptu skill of the football-style kicked assist that Megan Jones produced to assist Ellie Kildunne’s first try, and that perfectly executed training ground backline move off scrum ball that ended with Abby Dow crossing wings to usher in Jess Breach. Those moments were sweetly clinical.

However, you can’t help but feel that Mitchell’s England are playing with the handbrake on. Despite eclipsing the Scots by 10 linebreaks to one and by 10 offloads to two, there were too many self-inflicted wounds – 33 handling errors to just 15 by the opposition, according to the official stats.

Yes, the conditions in Edinburgh were at times filthy, akin to a horrible winter’s day in December and not a spring afternoon in mid-April. Bad weather or not, though, the bottom line is that Mitchell’s England are currently less potent than Simon Middleton’s.

Last year’s wins over Italy, Wales, and Scotland featured 31 England tries but they have just 24 this term, seven less than in 2023. There was pushback from Mitchell when it was suggested his team had an issue with stepping on the accelerator and producing a more complete performance.

“I wouldn’t say we are struggling. It’s the wrong terminology. It might be your terminology but we’re certainly not struggling. We’re presenting ourselves lots of opportunities,” he said in response to a RugbyPass suggestion.

“We just need to continue to trust the way we are playing the game, trust each other, trust who we are with and when we need to execute. I’d rather be in that situation than not presenting those opportunities. We’re in a good place.”

Bots the entertainer
One area of growth for England in recent weeks has been the all-court influence wielded by props Hannah Botterman and Maud Muir. Neither operates similar to Dan Cole, the old-school veteran on Steve Borthwick men’s team, who is thoroughly ball-allergic and restricts himself to just doing the set-piece, ruck clearance and tackle basics very well.

Botterman and Muir are constantly coming around the corner wanting Natasha Hunt to hit them with passes and their collective carry count is immense in keeping England ticking along with repeated gain line crossings.

The starting props were credited with 18 carries between them, Botterman enjoying a table-topping 11 and Muir only denied a first-half try by the penalised breakdown chicanery of the yellow card receiving Cokayne.

Botterman has the talent to become a supreme entertainer by the time the next Rugby World Cup comes around. Her first-half intercept was a canny bit of play and while the kick she produced some 10 or so yards later was a killer as it shanked into touch, the fact that she had the chutzpah to try it should be celebrated.

“We might be playing a little bit too much grubber touch in our skill games,” quipped Mitchell when asked to endorse Botterman’s mischief. “She was looking for the navigation to be a bit further north.

“But it just sums up Bots. Bots is a free spirit with an excellent skill set and she played awesome along with Maud Muir. I thought both props were outstanding; well the front row as a whole were outstanding.”

Managing Packer
The round four England team selection versus Ireland was teed up intriguingly by the impact of starting back row Mitchell went with versus the Scots.

Aldcroft, Sadia Kabeya, and Alex Matthews proved a very balanced unit, with the naming of Aldcroft at blindside rather than at lock resulting in the benching of veteran skipper Packer.

Packer being Packer, the 34-year-old wasn’t content to play an anonymous role in the shadows and it was her 73rd-minute try off the bench that rounded off the try scoring and left Mitchell fielding a question post-game about his potential round-four back row.

“Marlie is our team captain, Zoey is also our captain – We have got wonderful leaders,” he explained. “We have got a leader group that any one of them at any point of time might have to stand up and be captain.

“You have got to prepare for the future as well because you don’t always have everyone healthy or available so for anyone to step into the shoes of captaincy is important to understand and we also have to manage load as well.

“Marlie was managed (against Scotland) and it just goes to show what sort of depth we have and this exciting back row that started the game were awesome.”

Let’s call it: Mitchell will restore Aldcroft to the engine room to free up space for Packer to come back into the starting back row.

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