On an afternoon when a female jockey made history at Aintree, England moved a few more lengths clear in the two-horse race that is the Women’s Six Nations. The team in the white colours took a long time to get into their stride before beating Italy 67-3 in Parma and are on course to meet France on Saturday week in a play-off for the 2021 championship.
Not that England’s head coach, Simon Middleton, sees things as clear-cut, especially with France, a nation with particular problems in this pandemic, having to travel to Dublin this weekend to meet an Irish side that kicked off their campaign with a convincing 45-0 win in Wales on Saturday evening. “Ireland against France should be a great game as Ireland have a new-found confidence. You can’t bank on an England‑France meeting,” he said.
Nevertheless Middleton has assembled the strongest squad in the history of the women’s game, even if New Zealand will be anxious to prove otherwise when they host the World Cup next year. The scoreline at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in no way reflects how good Italy were, at least for an hour. But Middleton, who has rotated his squad for their two Pool A games, then introduced his replacements who all made an impact and the Italians found themselves submerged by a white tide with England scoring nine tries, all but the last converted by Emily Scarratt.
England sneaked a late win against the French thanks to Scarratt’s penalty at the death at Twickenham last November but France are the last side to have beaten Middleton’s team and that was three years ago in Grenoble. “We’ll look back at both games before naming a team for the final. I’ll probably just put 23 names in a hat,” joked Middleton who, from the outside at least, appears to have a nice problem in regards to deciding his lineup to face France or Ireland.
He will have some intriguing choices to make in the next 10 days. Sarah Hunter, for instance, came back for her first international in more than a year to lead the side in Parma. She was replaced 15 minutes after the break by Poppy Cleall, the player of the match against Scotland. Cleall made an instant impact, slipping a pass to Abby Dow for the wing’s second try, the most spectacular score of the afternoon.
Hunter had imposed herself on the game from the start but it would be impossible not to include Cleall in the starting lineup next week. One solution would be to use Hunter in her specialist No 8 role and Cleall at No 6, a position in which Alex Matthews caught the eye at the weekend.
Similarly Zoe Harrison will probably start at No 10 after looking so sharp as a replacement for Meg Jones on the hour but that would be hard on Helena Rowland who has scored tries in both her starts as Middleton searches for the long-term successor to Katy Daley-McLean.
“It was very different with Katy. She was always the first receiver and both these players can now have that role. But it’s all about the speed of ball and Zoe was terrific and threw out some fantastic passes,” said Middleton, a hint that the Saracens player, left out of the starting lineup against Scotland, has been forgiven for breaking Covid protocols last month.
“There were some fantastic cameos. We have got a category of players who are really explosive. We are looking at them as we ultimately build a strategy to work towards the World Cup.”
England are hoping to organise a day’s training with the Welsh squad this week. Wales may not relish this too much after conceding 98 points and not getting on the scoreboard in their Pool B games. The campaign has been a real anti-climax for Warren Abraham’s team who look as if they will be meeting Scotland in a wooden-spoon decider on finals day on 24 April. Scotland meet Italy in Glasgow this weekend.