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The players set to profit from Wales' new gameplan

With the Pivac era now a distant memory, Warren Gatland has a rich seam of talent to select from in the Six Nations

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Time for England to reveal plan B?

By Matt Merritt
WHANGAREI, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 15: Claudia MacDonald of England is tackled during the Pool C Rugby World Cup 2021 match between France and England at Northland Events Centre on October 15, 2022, in Whangarei, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

England win again, their 27th consecutive victory, but the cracks are beginning to show. Against a dogged and determined France the Red Roses finally looked fallible but had enough in the tank to see out the game.

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If there’s been a lingering criticism of England Women over the past couple of years it has been their lack of a plan B. Why worry about that when plan A works so well is often the reply and for 26 games that argument held up. Now, finally, it looks like teams are finding a way to counter the relentless power of the Red Roses.

All the statistics point to domination by the Red Roses. They enjoyed 68 per cent of possession and 70 per cent of territory. France had to make three times as many tackles as their opponents (237 compared to 79) but England had a slightly higher completion rate. The Red Roses had double the meters run of Les Bleus too… But for all that the numbers were in their favour they failed time and again to capitalise on them.

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England coach Simon Middleton got exactly what he was expecting from France today | Rugby World Cup 2021
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England coach Simon Middleton got exactly what he was expecting from France today | Rugby World Cup 2021

It’s a point not lost on head coach Simon Middleton. “We need to be clinical, take our chances when they are presented. I think if we had done that the scoreboard probably would have looked a bit different. You can do as much as you want on the training ground, but when you get into a game like that, when you are under absolute pressure, that is when you are tested to the max and there are the things that you can then really analyse.”

What was most startling in Whangarei was that a team blessed with talent seemed unable to come up with an alternate way to play the game. In fact, when Sarah Hunter was substituted for Poppy Cleall, the team seemed to forget how to play at all as tempers flared.

The good news for Middleton and his coaches is that they have the resources at their disposal to change things up. Tatyana Heard has yet to be deployed in the tournament, but her hard-running through the midfield will help the team punch holes against teams who can (almost) match them for power. The return to fitness of Abby Dow is key too, surely she will be given a shot to start in the next game?

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Zoe Harrison has matured into the clear first choice at fly-half and with Leanne Infante she forms a pragmatic, game-managing half-back unit. They’re both excellent players but it’s a combination that lacks the magic to break a game wide open. With Mo Hunt left at home the best option to really change things up is to give Helena Rowland a start at 10 and see what she can do with the quick ball Infante provides.

The peerless Emily Scarratt has been a bit off-colour at this World Cup to date, but even if she isn’t firing on all cylinders Scaz is still world-class and the fact she was responsible for all the Red Roses points against France highlights that perfectly.

Perhaps the most important thing for England is trusting their on-field leaders. With Hunter off the field Scarratt and Ward were the experienced heads but neither seemed capable of resetting the team mentality as France pulled them into a battle.

Despite all this though, their win secured them a spot in the quarter finals, not that the team were aware of that according to Hunter. “I didn’t know that if we won that was the quarter-final spot so I just found out that. Obviously we’ve got one more game and we want to finish as high a seed as possible but it certainly adds a little bit extra spice to a pool game.”

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Next up England face South Africa and it’s likely none of this really matters too much, as they should win comfortably. The Red Roses will have half an eye on the later stages of the tournament though, where the Black Ferns, Canada and Les Bleus all wait for the opportunity to finally end that streak.

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