There’s no Rose without a Thorn

The 2017 Red Roses: An Assessment from the outside

By Bruce Perkins

This is the start of a blog I’ve kept, reflecting the great events of England Women’s Rugby during the calendar year 2017.  Many of my statements and guesses were proved wrong by later events, but who’s right all the time? I hope it proves a good read.  Any dedication must go to the Red Roses who performed so brilliantly throughout.

Part One

2017 6 Nations in Review

You’re a front-row forward. You score a hat-trick of tries. Your reward: sent to the bench for the next game. That’s the fate of Vicky Fleetwood, who wears No 2 for the Red Roses – such is the competition for places in the starting side these days. Amy Cokayne, who replaces her, promptly scores her own hat-trick. Some sort of record there.

On March 17 2017, the England Women’s team achieved a victory that eluded the men the next day, when they beat Ireland at Donnybrook. This Grand Slam, their first 6N win since 2012, was a well merited stepping-stone towards the ultimate goal of a second successive World Cup win next August in Dublin and Belfast.

The decision to separate off a Sevens squad for Rio 2016 failed twice over: no medal at the Olympics, and under-powered performances in the Six Nations. But the longer-term effects were totally beneficial. The elite Rio squad returned to find a host of rivals competing for places in the 15s. Stalwarts like Rachael Burford and La Toya Mason were now having to wait their turn on the bench. The younger generation were giving performances that demanded attention. And the benefits accruing from a professional set-up really began to take effect.

For much of the 2017 6 Nations series the Red Roses displayed technical skills of the highest order. It’s rare for any coach to utter the word ‘sublime’ to describe passages of play by his team. But even against Scotland, going through a painful rebuilding process under Shade Munro, they fully justified Simon Middleton’s praise. That sunny afternoon at the Stoop, England offered the full range of combined and individual play. Even Kay Wilson, record-breaking bearer of septuplets on the left wing, will admit she was on the receiving end of a stream of magnificent passes, long and short, from forwards as well as backs.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. The series started worryingly at Twickenham. Despite considerable possession, the Red Roses went in at half-time against France 0-13 down. There are few things French rugby players enjoy more than victory at ‘Le Temple du Rugby’. The score was slightly misleading, since seven of those points came from an interception that let Shannon Izar race away 70 metres unmolested. But England needed a serious chat over their lemons. The second half showed that lessons had been learned. Scarratt chipped away at the deficit with a kick, then Waterman showed her elusiveness by sliding through out wide. Another calm kick by Scarratt brought the scores level, 13-13. In the last quarter she nudged the home side ahead with another pinpoint kick.

The coup de grâce came at the end of a blistering sequence of play. As so often happens, a kick-ahead out of defence by Rivoalen turned into a sudden counter by England. Scarratt finger-tipped a miraculous pass to Thompson as she was under attack from Ladagnous, and the winger threatened on the right. The pack had to work very hard to create another gap, but a clever off-load by Poppy Cleall gave Scarratt room on the left to put Wilson Hardy away. She cut inside Trémoulière to score under the posts. A curiosity – all the points had been scored at one end of the ground.

The jubilation at the end had a large measure of relief mixed in. This was not – yet – the finished article.

Final score: 26-13

England got the wagon rolling on the 4G pitch at the Arms Park against Wales. They weren’t the first English side to find themselves playing far better in their alternative colours – here, dark blue. Rowland Phillips was just beginning to knock his charges into shape. They had won four friendlies and the opening encounter of the 6N, but the narrowness of their defence showed his work had hardly begun. England found far more space to roam in than they expected. Not even a fine women’s choir and brass band pre-match could rouse the Welsh side to match the crowd’s expectations.

On three minutes, a wonderful chain of passes left gave Wilson Hardy the hint of a chance. With a wonderful step off her right foot, she left her opponent on the deck to score. This was the trigger for a parade of running rugby. Ten more tries were to follow:

8 min Cokayne
11 min Hunt after a thrilling combined move down the left
Thompson 22 min does a mirror performance of Wilson Hardy wide right. Her opponent left for dead
26 min Mclean
37 min Hunter from a line-out drive

Half-time 0-38

41 min Thompson after a break down the middle by Millar-Mills
47 min Waterman finishes a move on the far left
55 min Waterman again, after Wilson Hardy’s feint inside didn’t work and she was held short of the line
60 min wonderful work by Millar-Mills leads to a try for Wilson Hardy who learns from her previous error
66 min Thonpson with the final try after rampaging runs all over the field.

Final score: Wales 0 England 63

Disappointingly, this fine performance in Wales failed to find an echo back at the Stoop in Round 3 of the Championship. Italy proved resilient and stubborn opponents. They crossed the Roses’ try-line in under four minutes, thanks to a deft grubber through to the left corner. Not for the last time in 2017, England found themselves caught short on the open side, a failure that was to return to haunt them later in the year. Wilson replied after a delightful loop-pass over an opponent’s head by Scarratt. Seventeen minutes in, the ball sped the other way through hands for Wilson Hardy to put England ahead.

The pack produced their first driving maul of the game, one of their party pieces, for Fleetwood to drop over the line. They liked it so much that they tried another in a much higher gear.

Half-time 24-5

After the break, they repeated the dose with an even higher skill factor. A throw to the back of the line-out, a speedy realignment, the maul threatened to collapse but reformed instantly, and Fleetwood completed the move she had started.

From there, England stalled. Two more scores accrued over the remaining 36 minutes of play, both to Italy. As they attacked down the left, a series of English misjudgements and fumbles allowed Barattin, the captain, to beat Millar-Mills to the touchdown. A much finer attack saw the ball moved behind a screen wide to the left. Wilson Hardy managed to catch her opponent Stefan, but there was Forlan at full-back to take the final pass and complete a copy-book move. Italy were to remain the only side in the series to cross the English line three times. Some students were going to have to resit their Defence exams. Matters took a serious turn when the referee showed Mclean a red card for a reckless tackle. She would have to sit out the remaining games. It was useful but unwelcome practice for the team to test their skills when a player short.

For Italy, this was a minor triumph. They had never beaten England, but here they scored first and last and caused the home side a deal of embarrassment.

Final score: 29-15

Back at the Stoop, the Roses earned in full measure the tributes paid to them. Scotland couldn’t begin to answer their strength, pace and skill all over the field. The visitors’ defence was all too easily shifted out of position to give the English backs more space than they needed. This was the game that showed what the Roses were capable of, direct thrusts coupled with intricate movements of the ball between forwards and backs, to make try-scoring look like child’s play. As luck would have it, the ball kept swinging left, as if drawn by a magnet into Kay Wilson’s hands. She had a hat-trick under her belt within half an hour, and, against all the odds, the ball kept up its preference for her side of the field right up to the dying moments of the game. Her face showed disbelieving pleasure after her third try. By the seventh, she knew it was the game of her life. She was the inevitable Player of the Match, yet the all-round standard was so high that other players like Harriet Millar-Mills might well have got the nod.

Teams shouldn’t be measured by their results against the weakest opposition, but the skills on show that day marked the current Red Roses as a team apart.

Final score: 64-0

The 6 Nations was building to a fine climax. For the first time ever, the two sides meeting in Dublin for the decider both had the Grand Slam in their grasp. Donnybrook on that final evening of the Championship was very different from the Stoop of Round 4. The huge crowd roared and stamped, the weather was foul, and the half-time score read 5-0 to England. To come away with a 34-7 win was testament to their fitness, both physical and mental. They pulled ahead in that second half with some play that clearly demonstrated their right to claim the big prize. The two tries by Scarratt and Thompson, substituting late on the left wing, were in a class of their own.

The fallow years since 2012 when they last achieved this pinnacle – barring the small matter of a World Cup win in 2014 – could now be forgotten. They were back where they thought they always should be, and great was the rejoicing.

Simon Middleton now has the pleasant conundrum of deciding what his best XV is for the World Cup. His mind will be crystallised by the coming tour of New Zealand in June when the Red Roses will take on Canada and Australia as well as the Black Ferns, a trio including two of the favourites to take the crown from them. As with any long-term target, the one unpredictable element is injury. Fortunately, the Red Roses came through the 6N without major scares. Let’s hope it stays that way through this demanding tour, all the way back to Dublin and Belfast.

The over-30s are performing like gun-toting gazelles. The two centurions, Rocky Clark (122 caps) and Tamara Taylor (103), seem inexhaustible; Rachael Burford and Nolli Waterman perform with an intensity you’d expect from debutants. Katy McLean still controls the tiller at No 10 with the decisiveness born of long experience..

Middleton has those two hookers, Fleetwood and Cokayne (both well under 30!), who can run like backs besides throwing in laser-straight and driving through rucks. Harriet Millar-Mills can play anywhere in the back five, but in the lengthy absence of Abbie Scott established her place alongside Taylor with high-energy commitment. You have to feel sorry for opponents facing the flankers, Marlie Packer and Alex Matthews, as they surge past flailing arms and tackle like demons. The post-Alphonsi era is in safe hands. The captain, Sarah Hunter, leads by serene example at No 8, always seeming to be where the action is.

At half back, Mo Hunt has the edge over LaToya Mason in her speed of thought and movement, and Bianca Blackburn came on to add more spice to the competition for the 9 shirt. Amber Reed’s ability to play 12 or 10 is a bonus.

The one irreplaceable in the squad is, inevitably, Emily Scarratt. It is rare to find a player who can so dominate a game in all its aspects. England could still win without her, but she proved in the 2014 WC final how decisive her contributions can be. Her partnership with Reed in midfield is one of the jewels in the crown. Currently, three wingers are vying for two places: Lydia Thompson, Amy Wilson-Hardy and Kay Wilson. They can all play on either wing, though Wilson seems the natural choce for the left.

Waterman at 15 is another essential piece in the jigsaw. A ferocious tackler, safe under the high ball, able to kick when necessary, but blessed with outstanding footwork, she set up the greatest of England’s tries, the penultimate one against Ireland. She collected a bouncing kick-ahead, side-stepped two opponents and off-loaded from the ground to Blackburn, who gave a perfectly timed pass inside to Wilson Hardy; she too delivered a killer off-load to Scarratt lying on her back, and the rest was glory.

Who’s going to spoil the party? Short odds on the Black Ferns. They were distinctly unchuffed at losing to Ireland in the pool-stages last time round. Perhaps they might all miss the plane.

At this stage, a likely first choice side for a potential Cup Final on August 26:

15 Waterman
14 Thompson
13 Scarratt
12 Reed
11 Wilson
10 McLean
9 Hunt
1 Clark
2 Cokayne
3 Keates
4 Taylor
5 Millar-Mills
6 Matthews
7 Packer
8 Hunter (C)

Part Two to follow…