CASTRES – FRANCE The 2015 Women’s Six Nations competition picks up where it left off a fortnight ago with three mouthwatering games.
First up is Ireland v England at Ashbourne on Friday night, and while I’m sure this time around there won’t be any floodlighting slip-ups, my shoulders automatically slump at the prospect of another second-rate broadcast. If it’s the same as the game against France, there’ll be no replays, no TMO – hell, not even any close-ups of the action. It’s enough to make you wish for a dull match.
But after England’s impressive performance against Italy, chances are we’re in for a hell of a game and there really ought to be cameras covering every angle. Two years ago, Ireland beat England at Ashbourne, and the recent loss at the same ground to France will have stung deeply.
Coach Tom Tierney is taking no chances, making just a single change to his starting line-up, with the return of wing Hannah Tyrrell, who has been passed fit to play after suffering concussion. Tierney says: “England are a formidable opposition, they are the world champions and we are under no illusions about the strength of this side… Training has gone well and look forward to playing back in front of a home crowd. It was a disappointing loss against France, but there were some positives to take out of it. We have dusted ourselves off and are ready for the next challenge.”
England meanwhile, have had an extra week to savour their first real performance in this competition, and while there were lessons to be drawn from the Italy match, the women in white – along with new XVs coach Simon Middleton, who takes up his post in May – will have also breathed a sigh of relief that the squad seemed to finally be clicking.
Katy Mclean steps back into the captain’s position, with previous incumbent Tamara Taylor in as vice captain, a decision that has been part of the England plan from day one. Interim coach Nicky Ponsford says: “Katy has demonstrated over the years, especially during the World Cup, her qualities as a leader and I think that will be vital against Ireland… Tamara has done a fantastic job leading the side against Wales and Italy, so we are fortunate to have two experienced leaders in this team.”
Speaking about facing Ireland, Ponsford admits: “Without doubt, playing Ireland will be the toughest game of the Six Nations so far for us. Ireland are a well-drilled and physical side. We have learned our lessons from two years ago, so we will be ready to take on this challenge.”
Later that same Friday evening, Montauban’s Stade Sapiac sees France play host to Wales in what should be a gripping encounter between the competition’s top two teams.
The home side might, at first glance, appear to be at a disadvantage, after lock Manon André was suspended for four weeks after being found guilty of making contact with the eyes of an opponent – or what mere mortals may call eye gouging. Unusually, the automatic 12-week ban was reduced by eight for what is described in the official judgement as, “the existence of compelling and exceptional off-field mitigating factors.”
However, the French pack has been shuffled for the Welsh visitors, with young sevens star Marjorie Mayans – also known as ‘the queen of the tackle’ – and the promising Sha’nnon Izar finding making up a new midfield pairing.
Their inclusion will bolster the French back line, which has wobbled from time to time, but has been spared too many blushes as the forwards stole the show against both Scotland and Ireland. It will be fascinating to see how they cope with the Welsh squad that has also rung the changes.
Captain Rachel Taylor moves back into the second row with Shona Powell Hughes’ returning to duty at number 8, while newcomer Robyn Wilkins, of Cardiff Blues, gets her first taste of international rugby, replacing a benched Gemma Rowland at inside centre.
Speaking about the match, Welsh full-back Dyddgu Hywel said: “France came third in the World Cup and they are a really hard team to beat away, but we have beaten England, we looked good in beating Scotland, and we are in good form. The next challenge is beating France away.”
Sunday sees the action switch to Broadwood in Scotland, and once again the broadcast coverage looks set to vanish into the ether. Tune your radios then, die-hard fans, as captain Tracy Balmer’s bruised and battered team face Italy in their third match of the 2015 campaign.
The home side have clearly struggled with the pace and intensity of France and Wales, and unsurprisingly, there have been changes in the starting line-up.
Prop Lisa Robertson, lock Christianne Fahey and blindside Rachael Cook all come off the bench, as does scrum half Sarah Law, while Karen Dunbar moves from number 6 to openside, and prop Katie Dougan makes it to the bench.
Scotland desperately need to take something positive from this year’s competition, and Italy could be their one chance of a home win.
Head coach Jules Maxton says: “We were really disappointed with the result against Wales two weeks ago, given that we were within three points going into the final 20 minutes, and will be looking to put in a much more sustained performance this weekend.”
However, their last game against the Italians saw the visitors emerge victorious – putting even more pressure on the home side. Maxton will be looking to the crowd to lift his players and give them the boost they need to secure their first win in the 2015 Six Nations.
Italy will be no pushovers, with just two changes to their line-up. Centre Maria Diletta Veronese and prop Irene Campanini being replaced by Federica Cipolla and Lucia Gai respectively, and the Azzuri women will be keen to extend their run of victories over the Scots to three with this clash.
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