Middleton strikes grand slam gold in test of England’s World Cup mettle | Sarah Rendell

Coach has used Six Nations to determine a starting XV that have scored freely, but there are areas they must work on

The Women’s Six Nations trophy is in England’s hands for the fourth consecutive year but they will look to achieve something in the autumn they have not since 2014 – win the World Cup.

This tournament has been viewed as a stepping stone to success on the world stage. Their head coach, Simon Middleton, had five games to play with selection and tactics to avoid the heartbreak they suffered in the 2017 World Cup final at the hands of New Zealand. In some ways he has struck gold. England had 21 try-scorers who racked up 45 tries and clocked up 282 points.

Their strength in depth to bring in players who not only maintain the standards of the team but score a load of tries is a great asset for the World Cup. This goes as far as blooding new talent. When Emma Sing won her first cap she scored a try for England in the competition, an indication that training is clicking. Middleton knows he can trust whatever team he puts out to bring home the win.

The squad experimentation has enabled Middleton to find his preferred starting XV. The team had one change from their Ireland match for Saturday’s finale against France, with Poppy Cleall starting at No 8 for the injured captain, Sarah Hunter. It is the most consistent team game-to-game the Red Roses have had for at least a year. Finding their preferred lineup is essential for England’s World Cup campaign, the cohesion and consistency that can flow through the team will benefit them tenfold.

Resilience is another badge of honour the team doubled down on. Their toughest test was always going to come against France and Les Bleues lived up to the hype. England went behind for the first time in the competition with France scoring the opening try.

The Red Roses also received their first yellow card of the tournament as Zoe Harrison deliberately knocked on. But England won two penalties in a row and they did not concede a point while a player down. It was exactly the pressure they needed to test themselves against the best and show they can weather storms and still come out on top. The victory moved England on to a 23-match winning streak, one off the record in international rugby.

England’s Sarah Bern scores a try against France.
England’s Sarah Bern scores a try against France. Photograph: Nicolas Mollo/AP

But it has not all been rosy for England and there are areas they need to work on. A glaring problem is their handling. When England were patient in their attack they were almost guaranteed to score. Yet when they forced quick play or tried to be flashy with a long pass, they either knocked on or had to deal with a bouncing ball.

The side made 80 handling errors in the tournament, the most coming against Italy when they recorded 22. They were lucky on occasion that opponents did not pounce on an intercept and at the World Cup the Black Ferns and Australia will surely not be as forgiving. If they can eliminate the sloppiness, the attack will have an extra string in their bow. If not, it could be fatal.

Set-pieces have not been perfect either. Their lineouts against Wales were exploited and they quickly corrected being dominated at the scrum against Ireland.

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But their driving maul was the most successful in the tournament, bringing 11 tries from the set-piece. The forwards coach, Louis Deacon, has ample material to correct those errors or at least give the set-piece more consistency.

The Women’s Six Nations has been a great springboard for England. They have discovered their best team, have had a perfect run of results and also identified weaknesses. Those lessons, if learned, will benefit the team, who are in a prime position to bring home the World Cup.


Sarah Rendell

The GuardianTramp

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