Riding a wave of emotion, the England co-captain Sarah Hunter was given the perfect send-off as she retired after the Red Roses demolished Scotland in their opening Six Nations match at Kingston Park on Saturday. Hunter, who is the overall record cap-holder for her country, received a standing ovation from the 10,053 supporters in attendance when she was replaced after 58 minutes in her home city of Newcastle.
After 141 caps, 10 Six Nations titles, nine grand slams and one World Cup, Hunter led the team out for a final time with tears in her eyes as the national anthem played. That emotion was poured into a strong performance from the defending champions who ran in 10 tries including a hat-trick from the player of the match, Marlie Packer.
England, who had their players’ names on the back of their shirts for the first time, started shakily. Claudia MacDonald knocked on and their first attacking phases ended in a Scotland turnover. But their set piece was strong, winning a scrum penalty after marching Scotland backwards, and they not only had pinpoint lineouts but stole them, too.
The Red Roses were the first to draw blood as a Holly Aitchison pass found the co-captain Packer in space and she made a slick line break. A few phases later MacDonald was over and the inside-centre Amber Reed added the extras.
England made another handling error, this time with Abby Dow knocking on from a dropped high ball. Scotland had the scrum as a result and swiftly got on the attack. Emma Orr made a great break and an impressive play between her and Helen Nelson had Scotland metres away, but they were thwarted by a tackle. The visitors kept coming but their resilience was not rewarded, with Simon Middleton’s team the next to score.
England stretched their attack across the pitch, finding no luck in the left corner but they whipped it right and found the hooker, Amy Cokayne, on the wing to crash over. The tee was handed to the outside-centre Lagi Tuima, with Reed off with an injury, but she could not slot it.
It was three tries before 24 minutes with the crowd erupting as MacDonald beat five defenders and ran half the pitch to score a stunning solo effort. And it was not just the backs having their day in the sun despite the Newcastle cloud, with the prop Sarah Bern making a line break in the buildup to the bonus-point try. After Bern’s break England met a defensive Scotland wall but the replacement Tatyana Heard punctured a hole before finishing off the move.
England were moving through the gears with 30 minutes gone and their famous maul came into action. Scotland did well to defend it initially but the Red Roses eventually marched over with Cokayne coming good.
The Scotland captain, Rachel Malcolm, had spoken about the team adapting their attacking play before the tournament and glimpses came through here. The wing Francesca McGhie showed pace to come close to finding the visitors’ opener but tried to offload quickly and England pounced to win it back. The hosts attempted an ambitious pass to Jess Breach that went into touch and the players ran in at half-time with the score 31-0.
Poppy Cleall took less than two minutes into the second period to score, running from the attacking set to find a hole in Scotland’s defence. England were in possession again and Zoe Aldcroft shrugged off Christine Belisle to make ground before offloading to Sadia Kabeya, the back-row storming over the line.
Errors were Scotland’s downfall as they broke through England’s defence but holding on at the ruck gave the hosts an exit, kicking to the corner. The lethal maul was put into action and Packer dotted down. The loudest cheer of the afternoon came next as Hunter was replaced. Coaches and fans alike were on their feet as her trailblazing career came to an end.
England continued the rampant scoring, the maul again the team’s weapon with the back-row Packer over once more. It was deja vu minutes later as the set piece came good another time to give Packer her hat-trick. Just before she struck gold for a third time there was bad news for England as Cleall had to have help to walk off the pitch injured.
The crowd may have expected England to dominate until the end but Scotland did not fade; if anything, they sparked into life. The debutant Beth Blacklock made a huge break and they won a penalty, kicking to the corner. They ran the ball through their hands and Chloe Rollie used her pace to find a way through to score.
Rollie was off again and ran rings around Breach, before eventually being tackled a few metres short. England thought they had snuffed out the attack with a breakdown penalty but Scotland hit back from the lineout. The palpitating last 10 minutes from the Scots was halted as they were held up. It was a perfect start to England’s campaign but Scotland had the last say in a tasty match between old rivals.