CASTRES, FRANCE – It’s been a long time coming, but the curtain finally went up on the 2015 Women’s Six Nations on Friday night, as Ireland traveled to Firenze’s Stadio Mario Lodigiani to face Italy in the opening match.
The quality of the TV broadcast – which was aired on YouTube – was at best described as diabolical. Our Italian hosts’ idea of comprehensive coverage was a wobbly, hand-held camera with no access to replays or graphics. See my rant about that here.
At least the game was worth watching. Italy, captained by experienced head Sylvia Gaudino, were under pressure almost from the kick-off, as Ireland’s forward surged toward the try line again and again. They made it across the line three times in the opening 17 minutes, only to be held up by determined Italian defence.
For a while, it looked as if this was going to be a dull encounter, with the forwards dominating proceedings and the backs looking surplus to requirements. The deadlock was broken at 20 minutes by Irish captain Niamh Briggs.
When they did get their hands on the ball – however briefly – Italy showed they had some pace among their ranks. However, the women in green were once again soon firmly camped in Italian territory, though they failed to take the points from a penalty just before half time.
For the second half, Italy needed to produce something special to get them back in the game, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, prop Elisa Cucchiella was yellow-carded, and just moments later Paula Fitzpatrick crossed the line for Ireland.
Niamh Briggs extended the lead further with a penalty, while Jenny Murphy added her name to Ireland’s scoresheet, followed by tries from Heather O’Brien and a second from Fitzpatrick, putting the seal on what had been a solid – if unexciting – performance from the visiting side. You have to wonder what would have happened had they let the ball run wide a little more often and brought the backs into the mix sooner…
In the dying moments, Italy managed to give their vocal fans something to cheer about when Maria Magatti finally breached the Irish defence.
Final score: Ireland 30 – Italy 5
Things were much slicker on Saturday afternoon, when the action switched to France and the Stade Henri Desgrange in La Roche sur Yon.
Scotland, led by Tracy Balmer, faced defending Six Nations champions France, captained by the indomitable Gaelle Mignot. This was never going to be an easy game for the visiting side, and sure enough, the French gave no quarter.
Almost from the opening whistle, Scotland were outplayed and outmuscled. Their scrum didn’t so much creak under French pressure, it went backwards. Fast.
Within the first four minutes, France’s Laetitia Grand opened the score to the full-throated approval of the partisan crowd. It set the pattern for the next 80 minutes, with the French players thoroughly enjoying themselves, getting quick ball and passing cleanly – most of the time – while their Scottish opponents ran themselves into the ground.
For a while, the star of the French show was number 15, Jessy Tremoulière. As well as chasing down a ball most other players would leave for dead, she was almost metronomic in her kicking, slotting two conversions and a penalty.
Unfortunately, Tremoulière’s thunder was stolen by fleet-footed Julie Billes, who crossed the line twice in the first half and came back for one more in the second, while scores also came from Celine Héguy (who ought to have had two, but her second was disallowed) and Elodie Poublan.
While the French squad were joyful to watch, putting phases together with comparative ease, shoving the Scottish scrum all over the park and dominating in the line-out, it wasn’t all bad news for Balmer’s side.
Yes, they were slow and yes, they lacked shape, but grit and determination was there in spades. Despite the French onslaught, they defended gutsily and despite the depressing scoreline, heads didn’t drop.
It will be interesting to see what they can produce on their own turf at Broadwood.
Final score: France 42 Scotland 0
Sunday. Swansea. Wales. England. The final game of the opening weekend of the Women’s Six Nations was the one everyone had been looking forward to, and was arguably the hardest to predict. England went into the game as world champions, while Wales – unlike every other squad in the competition – were almost unchanged from the World Cup. It had all the hallmarks of an absolute belter.
The first half was a frustrating, slow-going affair, with little headway made on either side. Much of the play unfolded in the middle of the pitch, with England’s Megan Goddard and Wales’ Laurie Harries both failing to make the most of penalty attempts at goal.
Ruth Laybourn gave the visiting fans something to shout about when she broke free of the Welsh pack as England began to ramp up the pressure. But the Welsh defence refused to yield.
Almost on the stroke of halftime, Harries finally found her range to land a penalty. As the teams left the field, it was English heads that were bowed, something nobody had dared predict before kick off.
The second half saw the Welsh, captained by Rachel Taylor, grow in confidence, and prop Catrin Edwards gave the home side their first try in the 2015 competition – to the delight of the loyal crowd. Try as they might – and they did, over and over again – England could not get past a mighty Welsh defence.
Kicker Goddard watched two more penalty attempts sail wide of the mark, and to add to England’s woes, the game stopped while injured scrum half LaToya Mason was treated on the pitch and eventually replaced by Bianca Blackburn.
The women in white never really found any momentum, and in the dying moments, Wales capitalised, with Harries on the receiving end of Elinor Snowsill’s deft cross-field kick.
In the end, Wales enjoyed a well-deserved victory and got their 2015 campaign off to the best possible start. Questions will be asked of England, who defended like lions – but had little penetration in attack. Did they give too many experienced players to the Sevens side?
Final score: Wales 13 England 0
Women’s Six Nations Fixtures for Week Two:
13 February Ireland v France 7.30pm (GMT) Milltown House, Ashbourne RFC
14 February Scotland v Wales 5pm (GMT) Broadwood Stadium
15 February England v Italy 2pm (GMT) Twickenham Stoop
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