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The good and the bad: Reflecting on yet another Red Roses procession

By Claire Thomas
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 20: England's Hannah Botterman in action during the Guinness Women's Six Nations 2024 match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium on April 20, 2024 in London, England.(Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

Allow me a few paragraphs of grumble, please: I promise we’ll end on a high.

I put my microphone down at just gone four o’clock on Saturday after a really fun couple of hours watching one of the most impressive attacking performances I’ve ever seen.

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England were actually so lethal – so opportunistic and electric – that commentating on them became quite a logistical challenge: every time I wanted to discuss a wider point, or right as I asked Kat Merchant a question, a Red Rose would conjure up the latest moment of sorcery, and there’d be a try to call. It was relentless – they were relentless – which we can only applaud.

That’s when covering the world number ones gets less fun, because people ask you how work was, and there are gasps, winces, and – worst of all – amusement when you tell them the result. 88 – 10 is a terrible look for the game – a cricket score – and it does precisely nothing to entice new fans.

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Ireland weren’t bad, but they were nowhere near, and – although they fought tooth and claw until their legs were lead and their lungs screamed for oxygen – there was never, for even a second, the sense that they would bruise a single petal on the immaculate Red Rose.

Dannah O’Brien’s territorial management got them much better field position than their possession stats or scoring prowess would suggest, and their ball speed remained exemplary – out-shooting the world’s very best in a fast-draw duel – but that’s pretty much it. Not a single line break. As many line-outs won as lost. Missing 63 tackles – over a quarter of those attempted.

Their opponents were irresistible: out-dazzling Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s glitter ball attire with punch and panache, and playing before an ebullient crowd on a day which only confirmed the thrilling trajectory of this product – but that came at a cost: I’ve experienced a greater sense of jeopardy watching Disney movies for the second time.

On Sunday – it got worse. Wales nil – France 40: a final score which shone a stark light on the progress of this Welsh team – and illuminated all the holes in the WRU’s sticking plaster of professionalism.
The women in red were swimming in possession and territory, but desperately lacking in direction and potency, as Les Bleues scored in sevens.

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Ioan Cunningham was often shown on the coverage, watching on with a packet of Tangfastics on his desk. The confectionary choice felt horribly apt, as his charges fizzed for phase after phase after phase, but lacked any sort of clinical edge, and things ultimately turned sour.

At full-time – by which point the home side had been caught walking as France scored off a quickly-taken line out, been marched back for dissent, and floated countless loose passes onto the Cardiff turf – the sweets were gone, and he stood at the back of the coaches’ box – staring implacably at his laptop. In 2022, Wales were hurled the lifebuoy of contracts, but it looks increasingly as though there was no rope attached.

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Anyone who reads this column regularly will know that I love the women’s game and its Six Nations – the teams are wonderful, and the event is improving each and every year – but the tournament is fundamentally flawed, and that fabled ‘gap’ is only yawning larger.

The Red Roses shouldn’t be putting 88 points on teams, and round four’s average scoreline of 48 – 7 simply doesn’t work. We don’t have time to get into it properly here, but this Lions tour has been rushed into existence without enough thought, and – based on this weekend’s evidence – it’s going to be a trip to New Zealand for England plus a few extremely talented cameos, whilst French athletes who deserve involvement watch on with twiddled thumbs.

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Some thoughts.

I wanted to end with the positives from Twickenham, because it was a privilege watching England’s Cowgirls and enforcers respectively yeehaw and thunder their way to such a triumph.

The numbers. The Roses carried for 1,549 metres, gaining over a kilometre. They beat 63 defenders, whilst making 25 offloads, and executing six devastating first-phase line breaks.

They’re so confident in their pace, chemistry, and ability that two thirds of their exits were ball-in-hand. Once they reached the 22, it was – more often than not – game over. 19 visits: 14 tries.

The pack. Hannah Botterman is a contender for Player of the Championship. Sadiya Kabeya’s athleticism is frightening, and her involvements have gone through the roof. Zoe Aldcroft made 129 metres on Saturday – 129! – including a gallop so majestic it deserves Hans Zimmer scoring.

Alex Matthews simply does what she wants at points: unstoppably classy and classily unstoppable. If Connie Powell bangs any harder on John Mitchell’s office door for a starting spot, she’ll take it off its hinges. Morwenna Talling, just returned from injury, found out she was starting minutes before kick-off, and drummed up five dominant tackles.

The backline. Mitchell’s favourite expression is that he wants sufficient cohesion to ‘take the handbrake off’ in attack. Under Lou Meadows, they seem to have removed that mechanism altogether. Oh, to be Holly Aitchison, and know that – at any given moment – there are world-class operators to your left and right.

To receive the ball swiftly and on the front foot (chapeau, aforementioned forwards and Mo Hunt), to have the razor-sharp strategist’s brain to instantly select your most lethal option, and then to have all the whips, tips, jinks, stabs, fixes, and floats to set bodies in motion.

Tatyana Heard spoke last week about the ‘flair and vision’ of the ‘electric’ Meg Jones, and their combined midfield magnetism is starting to really wreak havoc. Abby Dow’s subtly layered world-class details and brute strength onto her ever-present pace, Jess Breach has been given the licence to go hunting she so desperately longed for under Simon Middleton, and Ellie Kildunne… there’s nothing which hasn’t already been said about this scything, scoring megastar.

It was consummate and compelling: the best team in the world playing rugby which was as easy on the eye as it was unbearable for their opponents. A penny for the thoughts of New Zealand Rugby, who whipped a Wayne Smith-sized rabbit out of the hat in 2022. If they’re to break English hearts again next Autumn, they’ll need to rootle around and pull out a sabre-toothed tiger of a trump card: the hosts are just getting better and better…

Next up for the Grand Slam defenders? Saturday’s headline fight at the Stade Chaban-DelCrunch.
France were far from perfect in Cardiff – they forced things unnecessarily in attack, their line out was as effective as a chocolate kettle, and the way they flew up to snatch intercepts and force errors from the Welsh would be desperately risky against England – but there was plenty to get excited about, as the eyes of the rugby world turn to Bordeaux.

The first two games of the day are equally unmissable – it’s last chance at Saloon Principality, and Scotland’s trip to Belfast will be a colossal clash – but that late kick-off will be nothing short of enthralling. How will John Mitchell’s Red Roses cope under real pressure for the first time? At last – at long last – we’re about to find out.

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D
Diarmid 9 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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