CASTRES, FRANCE – If last week’s opening matches of the 2015 Women’s Six Nations were a mixed bag, then the second round offers a chance for those who shone to fall from grace, and for those who tasted defeat to prove their mettle.
The clash of the weekend comes tonight, between Ireland and France, as the competition’s two strongest sides set out to demonstrate why they’re a cut above the opposition – and potentially decide the overall winner.
After their mullering of Italy in the first week, it’s no surprise to learn Ireland have made only two changes to their squad, with Katie Fitzhenry winning a place in the starting line-up for the match at Ashbourne RFC. In a late change, Hannah Tyrrell is out with concussion, leaving Aoife Doyle to step in.
While the debate rages on Twitter about whether the Irish squad should have played this showpiece match at Donnybrook, head coach Tom Tierney is happy enough: “Playing at home is a great plus for us and hopefully we will have a big Ashbourne crowd to make it a good atmosphere to help give those home supporters a good performance and a win.”
Ireland are going to need every scrap of home advantage in the face of the French side, led by the indomitable Gaelle Mignot. Their Six Nations campaign got off to a flying start, with Julie Billes running in three tries and Jessy Tremoulière proving she’s no slouch either on the wing or with the boot.
They have made one change to their squad, with Cécilia Saubusse replacing Marie Menanteau, but the visitors will be out to prove their free-flowing game is more than a match for Niamh Briggs’ team’s relentless front row.
Saturday sees Scotland go looking for their first points in this year’s competition, welcoming Wales to their new home of Broadwood.
Tracy Balmer’s outfit were comprehensively crushed by France in their opening clash, but head coach Jules Maxton is pinning some hope at least on being back on Scottish soil. She said: “I think home advantage is very important, there was a massive French crowd and they definitely have an effect on the players during the game.”
Wales meanwhile, head north with a spring in their step, despite having had to shuffle their pack. Shona Powell-Hughes is being rested, giving a start for second row Jenny Hawkins. Captain Rachel Taylor reverts back to flanker, and Sioned Harries moves to No 8.
Welsh coach Rhys Edwards shrugged off the changes and focused on his side coming away from Broadwood with an emphatic win. He said: “The England victory will not count for anything unless we follow it up with another against Scotland.
“To do that we need to be more clinical with the many opportunities that we created.”
The second weekend is rounded off with what should be a one-sided clash between England and Italy. On paper, you’d expect the women in white to win, but after their less-than-convincing performance against Wales, it’s no certainty.
Former England winger Kat Merchant said of their opening match: “It looked like England lacked a bit of oomph. It wasn’t like anyone did anything wrong, they maybe weren’t as confident to go forward. I think they will regroup and come back stronger for it, so I’ll be interested to see these girls’ second caps and see how much they’ve already gained in experience.”
Even the most cynical armchair critic would have to fancy England’s chances at the Stoop. Italy, despite showing the odd flash of something interesting were completely overwhelmed by a dominant Irish squad a week ago. Here’s hoping they do more than simply ‘turn up’.
While England have been troubled by injuries – LaToya Jackson and Emma Croker have both been ruled out – the big (if unsurprising) news is the return of Katy McLean to the side. Acting head coach Nicola Ponsford will be looking to the likes of McLean and captain Tamara Taylor to steady the ship and secure a convincing win.
It’s hard to predict what will happen if they don’t…
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