Who were the stand out players of this year’s Women's Six Nations?
As the curtain comes down on another fantastic Women’s Six Nations, you can’t help but wish there were another couple of rounds. Sure, the final result was inevitable, but the rugby played was so incredibly entertaining that we as fans weren’t ready for it to end so soon.
Super Saturday saw three record crowds in attendance, which deserves headlines in itself; but in terms of the rugby, what were the stories of this year’s Six Nations to set it apart from the rest?
Scotland bouncing back to win two games on the bounce was nothing short of inspiring; you can’t help but feel delighted for Rachel Malcolm and her team. Wales’ triumph – maybe the gap between them and England and France isn’t closing, but a gap between them and Scotland, Ireland and Italy is certainly starting to open.
And finally, each nation has a multitude of players who have established themselves as top-end internationals. The beauty of the Six Nations is it’s a chance to test yourself against the best. Let’s have a look at a few of the best and biggest breakthrough names and assess their impact:
Ireland – Deirbhile Nic a Bháird
It was a long, hard campaign for the Irish women, for a variety of reasons. Every week you’d witness Nichola Fryday speak brilliantly after a tough loss – only to wonder if there’s more she wishes she could say. Fryday was one player who looked genuinely fantastic in every game, but the true standout was number 8 Deirbhile Nic a Bháird.
Nic a Bháird began the campaign as Ireland’s bench hooker, and in the best way possible, she didn’t take this well.
Against Wales, she was utterly destructive, and played a huge role in frustrating Wales in the second half, with Ireland winning the final quarter. From there, she won the starting 8 jersey and established herself as Ireland’s strongest carrier. Not only is she physically so bulky, but her lines of running are exceptional.
Against Scotland, she provided her opponents with tough situations through to the final whistle. An arm tackle doesn’t get Nic a Bháird to the floor. She has truly thrived this tournament, and hopefully Ireland will continue to build around her.
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Italy – Alyssa D’Inca
Veronica Madia. Vittoria Ostuni Minuzzi. Beatrice Rigoni. What do all of these players have in common? That’s right, they’re absolute heaps of fun. Introducing Alyssa D’Inca, your new favourite Italy back, set to complete the most entertaining backline in world rugby.
D’Inca is fast, agile and unpredictable. She’s basically your dream Barbarians selection out wide. Her ‘Player of the Match’ performance against Ireland was one of the stand-out individual games of the competition. Playing outside Rigoni, Madia and Michela Sillari may look easy from afar, but D’Inca looks to have all the defensive tools to back it up and really establish a starting spot going forward.
France – Marine Ménager
Okay – tell a lie, France’s best player in this Six Nations was obviously Gabrielle Vernier – but we’ve already spoken about her at length. Captain Forlani was also at her world-class best; arguably the most reliable set-piece lock in the women’s game.
But let’s briefly talk about Vernier’s centre partner, Marine Ménager. Ménager has been a part of France’s backline for seven years now, and has scored countless highlight reel tries. This championship, though, she has reinvented herself. Moving in from wing to centre, she has proven there is more to her game than pure speed, often stepping in as a first receiver. Let’s look at the impact of this:
As France attack from the right-hand edge, Ménager sits in behind France’s initial carrying trio. She remains hidden, so Wales aren’t necessarily considering her as a threat.
As the carry is made, Ménager steps up to the first receiver position. She tells her outside forward group (led by Yllana Brousseau) to get a tad wider so they can run at both Bethan Lewis and Lleucu George in the Welsh midfield. George trusts Lewis to make a one-woman chop, which she does, but it means France’s ball is still lightning fast.
Ménager, Vernier and Gaelle Hermet all flash round the corner, so Wales’ best option is to drift hard and push them towards the touchline. What they’ve forgotten, though, is Ménager’s individual running threat.
Wales’ hard drift defence gives Ménager, still a top-tier winger, a 1v1 with a passive George. Ménager steps inside, and because Brousseau took Lewis out of the game, there is no one on George’s inside to finish Ménager off. She makes a fantastic solo run and offloads to Vernier, who in turn sets up the magnificent Melissande Llorens to score.
Ménager’s awareness to send a carrier at Lewis and take her out of the game is what sets this try up. Her footwork is the icing on the cake.
Scotland – Fran McGhie
Scotland, you have a very special talent in the locker here. 19-year-old Francesca McGhie is exactly what Bryan Easson has been looking for. Her first cap saw her dropped in the deep end against England’s back-three of Abby Dow, Jess Breach and Claudia MacDonald – the best wide trio in world rugby.
And McGhie held her own! She showed she has the capability to be physical, make good defensive reads, show good linespeed and aggression, get high in the line and work extremely hard in attack.
By her second cap against Wales, she was a genuine threat. Many would be fearful of a debut against the Red Roses, but McGhie figured it can only get easier from there. She was magnificent against Italy then capped off the tournament with a sensational solo try against Ireland. What a future that woman has.
How on Earth do you only pick three from her, Coreen Grant, Chloe Rollie and Rhona Lloyd?
Wales – Bethan Lewis
Once again – we’ve already spoken about Wales’ ferocious front-row, so let’s look slightly further back. Bethan Lewis is the human embodiment of what professionalism can do to a player. She has gone from a good technical flanker to a woman possessed.
Wales’ back-row stocks are flying, with Alisha Butchers out injured, Alex Callender on sparkling sledging form, Kate Williams constantly making an impact and Sioned Harries still scoring plenty of tries. Georgia Evans, another contender for Wales’ best player this campaign, also started at 6 against Ireland. That position is absolutely stacked, and yet Lewis feels totally undroppable.
Lewis’ strongest facets include her defensive and breakdown work, but she has also really worked on her ball carrying. Let’s quickly look at a moment that felt like her campaign in microcosm:
Context is important here: Harries has just scored Wales’ third try and Ioan Cunningham’s courageous crew are looking to put the dagger into Italy and score the bonus point try. It’s also Italy’s first ruck with Sofia Stefan on for Sara Barattin at 9.
Stefan goes into the breakdown on the first tackle instead of playing scrum-half. Evans spots a mismatch and immediately counterrucks through the middle. She then twists her angle and knocks the ball loose.
With no scrum-half there to rescue the ball, Bethan Lewis picks it up. She contemplates passing to Keira Bevan, but decides to take responsibility and carry herself. She accelerates into a gap and has two half-tackles on her, so she can carry on pumping the legs.
She makes around 12 metres, and her carry is so dominant that Wales can get quick ball with only Hannah Jones clearing out.
Wales go wide to Courtney Keight, and what’s that? Lewis is already back up to her feet!
This line is the result of spending all day, every day, practicing your timing and simply knowing which spaces are about to open up. She runs an inward line to the space just outside referee Joy Neville.
This line is known as a “flood” – once a team has played to an edge and gotten a dominant carry, it’s common for the defence to honeypot around the breakdown and spaces will often open up a few paces wider.
Lewis almost runs this line too well, as she ends up running into Neville and Wales are awarded a scrum. Lewis’ work rate and efficiency in running this line EIGHT SECONDS after her last carry speak for themselves about what a fantastic asset she is to this Welsh pack.
England – Hannah Botterman
Botterman is a well-established figure in the English front-row – known for her scrummaging and carrying work around the park. This Six Nations, she has cut out the penalties she has copped in past and is now a ruthless operator around the park. To be as physical as Botterman whilst being disciplined is no easy task, but she’s taken to it wonderfully.
Arguably the most improved area of Botterman’s game is her work at the breakdown. Against France, Botterman constantly came up with turnovers in her own 22, and stunted the French attack whenever it began to look effective.
Her choice of which breakdowns to attack is invaluable; and with Marlie Packer and Sadia Kabeya already in the team, how does anyone expect to retain the ball against the Red Roses?
Botterman really attacked the French pack at scrum time and has looked to make that number one jersey her own. She has had healthy competition from MacKenzie Carson, and it has certainly helped the Saracen thrive.
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Gavin Hastings, was playing was he? 🤔Go to comments
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