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Women’s Six Nations: England show winning character but need plan B for World Cup

Women's Six Nations: England show winning character but need plan B for World Cup thumbnail

Head coach Simon Middleton hailed his “tough” England side as they battled through a bruising physical encounter against France to claim a third successive Women’s Six Nations title.

Poppy Cleall’s try at the end of the first half put the Red Roses ahead, but French pressure saw their lead reduced to one point.

England held on through sheer grit to eventually seal a 10-6 win.

“The physios will be busy tonight,” Middleton joked after the match.

“What we’ll take from this is that we’re a tough side. We were under pressure for long periods.

“It was a nerve-wracking game all the way through. We stayed in the fight, defended really well and attacked the breakdown. That character is great to see.”

‘England need a plan B’

Yet another Six Nations title is a promising sign with the postponed World Cup – where a possible meeting with hosts New Zealand awaits – now 17 months away.

But England did show signs of nerves, with the normally unflappable Emily Scarratt – who went off for a head injury assessment in the first half – missing two penalties and captain Sarah Hunter giving a much-needed boost off the bench.

Hunter has struggled with injuries over the last year and World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi expressed some concerns over whether England can win tournaments should they be forced to play without such crucial leaders.

“When players like that are off the field, how do England keep control, who stands up?” she said on BBC Two.

“We saw Hunter come on and she took her leadership role seriously and influenced the players.”

England defended impressively to keep France from scoring as Les Bleues looked increasingly dangerous in the second half but repeated errors held back the Red Roses in attack.

The hosts set-piece also failed them at times, with line-outs thrown awry and France sometimes dominating the scrum.

Alphonsi suggested losing leaders like fly-half Katy Daley-Mclean – who retired last year – may have left England unable to change course when things are not going their way.

“They need a plan B, if plan A is not working, what is the next thing they do?” Alphonsi asked.

“They can’t resort back to Scarratt or Hunter to definitely change the game. What else can they do to mix up the game?

“That is when they miss players like Katy Daley-Mclean because she was so good at that, but they have players coming through.”

New window brought ‘desperately needed’ coverage

The game was the first Women’s Six Nations final after disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic forced a change in tournament format.

Postponed to April rather than the usual February-March window, the event stepped out of the shadow of the men’s tournament for the first time.

Middleton said standing separately from the men’s event gave the tournament coverage it “needs desperately”, with the final shown on BBC Two.

With England and France dominating the tournament for the past six years, the head coach also pointed out the benefit of having a final between the two teams.

“With the greatest respect to the other teams, if we played France first up sometimes it can look like the rest of the competition is done and dusted,” he continued.

“Today is a great example of how you can bring things to a head.”

Scarratt said she was “torn” over whether the format should stay as it has been this year or revert back to the traditional round-robin.

“I really enjoyed the timing of the tournament,” she said. “We were standalone, not competing.

“That has got a place for growing our game. I still like playing all the games but it was nice to have a final. Luckily I don’t have to make those decisions.”

‘I always get told off for being really miserable’

Head coach Simon Middleton celebrated the win with the trophy on his head

England’s celebrations may be short-lived as they will travel to France for a friendly on Friday which will be shown live on BBC iPlayer.

But players and staff did not hold back in the immediate aftermath of the final, with Middleton seen joyfully holding the trophy on his head in the middle of the pitch.

“I always get told off for being really miserable,” he explained.

“I didn’t do it last time so I did it this time. I might end up regretting it.”

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