CASTRES, FRANCE – It’s been a fortnight since we were last in the company of the women’s international sides in this year’s Women’s Six Nations, but there’s been plenty going on in the meantime.
First up is the excellent news that the 2015 Women’s Varsity match is going to receive equal billing with the men’s at Twickenham – something everyone will agree is a massive leap forward for the women’s game.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, the accusations of spying levelled against Perpignan have resulted in a member of the French XV being suspended. While the rash actions of one player are disappointing enough, rather strangely, she has not been named: instead PRs are insisting that maintaining her anonymity will protect her family.
What this story will do for the reputation of French women’s club rugby only time will tell, but it’s cast a shadow over what has been a terrific tournament so far – and prompted several changes to the French squad. But we’ll get to them shortly.
Kicking off this week’s Six Nations action is the match between England and Scotland at the Northern Echo Arena in Darlington on Friday.
It will come as no surprise to hear acting coach Nicky Ponsford has made a few changes to the England line up, after their bitter defeat to Ireland in Dublin. Joining the fray for this game is Worcester wing Lydia Thompson. Despite her experience as a member of the World Cup-winning side, the pressure will be on her as she hasn’t played for England since August.
Meanwhile, Richmond’s Fiona Pocock finally gets a start after a long lay-off through injury, and is joined by Justine Lucas, Rowena Burnfield and Hannah Field.
It’s a bold move by Ponsford, who said:
“For us, we are heading into the match very much focused on our performance. We were disappointed with the execution of our game plan against Ireland so we have been working hard on how we are going to deliver that against Scotland.”
Scotland too, have rung the changes as they continue to seek their first victory in what has been a gruelling competition this time around.
Coach Jules Maxton has brought Murrayfield Wanderers‘ Eilidh Sinclair into the pack, alongside Richmond‘s Deborah McCormack.
Maxton, who assures fans the national side is steadily improving with each game, will be hoping for more points from Jade Konkel, who crossed the line against Italy and Nuala Dean, who managed a penalty.
“England have had their challenges and will be looking to bounce back after a late defeat to Ireland last time out so we know we have to hit the ground running on Friday.
“We’re really looking forward to running out at what is a new venue for us and being the second of our two nations’ double-header are hoping for a good crowd to cheer on all our players.”
Saturday sees the action switch to the pretty Italian town of Badia Polesine, as it hosts its first-ever Women’s Six Nations match at the Nuovi Impianti as Italy take on France.
On paper, the possibility that this year’s French side could be beaten is a slim one, but the Azzurri have done it before – two years previously at Rovato.
Realistically, it will take more than a good memory for Italy to come out on top this time around. Les Bleus, led by the indomitable Gaelle Mignot have been a force of nature in this year’s Six Nations.
Their invention, pace and flair have made them a joy to watch – but a nightmare for the other sides in the contest to cope with. However, the spying shenanigans mentioned earlier have forced coach to make several changes.
Marjorie Mayans and Shannon Izar return to Sevens duty, while newcomers out-half Audrey Abadie, back row Laetitia Bobo, lock Emilie Mathieu, prop Amaya Gonzalez and Lina Guerin join the squad.
Finally, on Sunday afternoon at St Helens in Swansea, the curtain goes up on arguably the weekend’s most eagerly anticipated game: Wales v Ireland.
Captain Rachel Taylor will win her 50th cap in a must-win match for the Welsh if they are to claim the Triple Crown after the Grand Slam was snatched from them by France.
Coach Rhys Edwards has brought in centre Gemma Rowlands, recreating the same back line that took on England in the opening game of this year’s Six Nations, while seasoned loosehead Jenny Davies and second row Jenny Hawkins are also called up.
“Ireland won’t be much different to France – they have a big pack and they will try to take the game to us up front. We know it is going to be a physical battle again but we have the players capable of stopping that.”
Ireland, meanwhile, will be without Katie Fitzhenry, thanks to an ankle injury picked up during training. She will be replaced by Jackie Sheils, with Aoife Doyle on the bench.
The women in green have had mixed fortunes during this year’s competition, but pulled off a last-gasp win against England in a hard-fought match in Dublin two weeks ago. They’ll be looking for an easier victory in Wales, but coach Tom Tierney isn’t counting his chickens.
“It was great to get a win against England a fortnight ago, and has left us in a good position for the final two rounds of the championship, but we are always looking for improvements.”
“We are not underestimating Wales, they are a strong side and we have no doubt they will bring their all with them for the home crowd.
If we do the small things right we will be in good shape.”
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