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Tumbling records, rising stars, and lasting memories: the 2023 Women’s Six Nations

By Claire Thomas
England v France – TikTok Women’s Six Nations – Twickenham Stadium

That’s it, then. The 2023 Women’s Six Nations. Done. Fin. End scene. A wrap.

Numerically? Mega. The fans engaged, shared, discussed, adored, attended, purchased, cheered, oohed, aahed, and were hooked in their droves. The media captured, platformed, debated, scrutinised, and amplified it like never before. The players prepared, emerged, fronted up, hustled, hit, sweated, bled, roared, celebrated, signed, selfied, trailblazed, and shone at the heart of it all. More of everything, and better than ever. Women’s rugby is on a trajectory so steep you’d crook your neck if you stared at it for too long – not that you’d mind.

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Narratively? A work in progress. The trophy was only ever going to be lifted by one of two nations, and I’d have bet a good sum of money on the winner of ten of the 15 fixtures. That’s not enough jeopardy, by any means. Many of us were on tenterhooks for Scotland against Wales and Italy, and towards the end of Le Crunch, but that’s probably it – whereas what you really want from a tournament is to be on the edge of your seat more often than not: as precariously perched as Alex Callender’s nearly entirely pointless scrunchies – engrossed in a battle as unpredictable as Beatrice Rigoni in space.

Following Brian Easson’s Scots was compelling, mind – as was watching a fresh-faced, Holly Aitchison-orchestrated Red Roses take shape, and relishing the way Wales navigated that infamously difficult second professionalised album.

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Athletically? Barnstorming. We saw some scintillating rugby, including – but in no way limited to – the following. Chloe Rollie running lines which wouldn’t look out of place on a devilishly tricky Mario Kart course.

Mélissande Llorens announcing herself as one of the hottest young talents in the game. Fran McGhie standing up, stepping five people, and shouting “me too!” Gaëlle Hermet playing with a mesmeric combination of class and fury at every opportunity. Hannah Botterman’s turnover celebrations. Enough said. Hannah Jones, Tatyana Heard, and Gabrielle Vernier proving that there are at least three different ways to be a world class inside centre. Romane Ménager playing just 143 minutes, but – bang for your buck – perhaps proving the most influential player of the tournament. Sarah Bern conjuring up moments so good that all you could do was shriek in real time at her virtuosity, and then chortle at the replays. Abby Dow generating the sort of power and velocity that only a qualified engineer (aka Abby Dow) could actually comprehend, and Sisilia Tuipulotu proving that anything can be tackled or flattened, if you really put your mind to it. An abundance of riches.

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Emotionally? A rollercoaster. The stall was set out with Sarah Hunter’s retirement: goosebumps nothing to do with the crisp Northern air at a packed-out Kingston Park. It didn’t let up as a tearful Nichola Fryday spoke with striking composure after Ireland’s thumping by a 14-woman France. We all felt Wales’ turmoil in Cardiff, as all of that momentum thudded into the immovable object that is England, and even the buzz of a sun-drenched record crowd couldn’t soften the blow of that stark reminder of ‘the gap’. Just a few hours later, the scenes were of ecstasy, as Alyssa D’Inca was mobbed in Parma: the prodigious, scything, winger at the heart of a crucial victory. The bizarre realisation in Round Four that the team who had scored nothing were happier than those who’d notched 48 – as the Red Rose misfired against a courageous Ireland. The ugly tears, Kim Kardashian-style, as Scotland fought tooth and nail for their first win in thirteen matches. The flutters of anticipation as, the next day, France put out an opening forty which suggested that we’d have a grand slam decider for the ages. The little sort of advent calendar we had throughout, building towards Twickenham. Only, rather than the date creeping up, it was ticket sales – cruising past last year’s tallies, brushing aside pre-tournament rumours, decimating the world record, and smashing through all expectations so loudly you could hardly hear the Sugababes.

It really was a Super Saturday – wall-to-wall with wonder women. The scenes at HQ. The ferocity of the Roses. The arrival, albeit 40 minutes late, of a French side who had come to properly jouez jouez. A trophy lift before overflowing stands: a giddying peek through the curtains of time towards 2025…

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Wales then nailed a statement win to make it back-to-back bronzes, with some of their brightest stars crossing the whitewash, before Scotland made sure they hadn’t just snapped a losing streak, but started a winning one – and their scorers couldn’t have been much more poetic, either. Workhorses Lana Skeldon and Leah Bartlett, perennial winner of ‘Six Nations skipper I’d run through brick walls for’ Rachel Malcolm, the sensational Rollie and equally mercurial Meryl Smith, and ballerina-turned-scimitar McGhie. Premier 15s sides will be falling over themselves to snap up those last two: they’re serious talents.
This brings me nicely onto what’s next. If you liked what you saw, and are despondently taking down the purple bunting in your living room whilst contemplating a lengthy spell without women’s rugby –do not fret. The Premier 15s – where the very best in England, Wales, and Scotland ply their trade (along with a smattering of Irish, French, and Italian powerhouses) – resumes next weekend, and is brilliant. It’s just like the Six Nations – but with more teams, more jeopardy, and an offloading, scrummaging torpedo we call Hope Rogers. Next Sunday, you can catch two games live on BBC channels: Saracens versus Exeter, and Loughborough Lightning versus Gloucester-Hartpury. Both will be excellent, so mark your cards.

This was the Six Nations which started with a purple ball pit, and which ended with a toy dinosaur in a trophy. Along the way, Ireland proved that heart and talent alone aren’t enough at this level, Wales that those – plus support and funding – can transform a national team, and England that there’s an abundance of roses blooming – even as one of the greatest of them all steps aside. This might have been the last dance of Sarah Hunter – and of Sara Barattin and Jessy Trémoulière – but there’s so much more to come from this tournament, on and off the pitch. As Simon Middleton said on Saturday – ‘this has to be the benchmark.’ Onwards and upwards, then – the only way women’s rugby seems to know right now.

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