CASTRES, FRANCE – The third round of the Women’s Six Nations 2015 promised to be a mouthwatering affair and it certainly lived up to expectations.
We’ll start with the Friday-night action in Montauban, where more than 8,000 people flocked to the Stade Sapiac to watch France take on Wales. Only points difference separated the two sides, with the visitors going into this match at the top of the Six Nations table.
However, almost from the starting whistle, Les Féminines made it clear: this was going to be a bruising encounter.
Captain Gaelle Mignot led from the front, carrying the ball in what was an unstoppable maul and crashing over the Welsh try line in the first six minutes. Although French no 15 Jessy Tremouliere missed the conversion, it looked for all the world as though this was going to be a one-sided affair. But Wales refused to back down.
Quick thinking from Elinor Snowsill and Rachel Taylor prevented two scores from the French, in a first half that was aggressive and physical – neither side was prepared to give an inch. While much of the time the ball was in French hands, when the Welsh did manage to get possession, quick ball was nowhere to be seen, or mistakes were swiftly punished: Sioned Harries was yellow-carded for offside, and Tremouliere slotted a penalty to increase the French lead to 11-0 at half time.
As expected, the Welsh took the game to the French in the opening moments of the second half, but minutes was all it lasted. The home side were quickly inches from the Welsh try line when Caryl Thomas was sin binned, leaving the visitors’ defence stretched to breaking point.
Moments later, Wales conceded a penalty try, swiftly followed by a great break from Elodie Poublan before Julie Billes, who has been a revelation during this year’s competition, went over the line.
With Wales back at full strength, they tried to mount a fightback, but by now fatigue was setting in, and it was the rampant Bleus who saw an overlap and handed Billes her second try-scoring opportunity.
With the score at 28-0, the women in red gave one last effort and – though it was way, way too late – their hard work paid off with a penalty try in the dying moments. Laurie Harries duly converted, making the final score marginally more respectable, but it was clear this hadn’t just been a loss at the hands of the French, it had been an absolute thumping.
Meanwhile… It will be interesting to see what England make of the championship leaders when they go head to head in the final round, given the women in white came a cropper at Ireland this week.
They went into this away game with their tails up: Katy McLean was back as captain and the convincing win against the Italians had everyone agreed the English team was heading in the right direction.
But Ireland at home is a different matter altogether.
What they witnessed was a gritty, nail-biting war of wills between two sides that had very little to choose between them. With the wind at their backs, England took the game to the Irish, with McLean getting the first opportunity to put points on the board.
Unfortunately, her penalty attempt went wide, but the women in white didn’t have to wait long to be given another chance. This time, albeit by the skin of its teeth, McLean’s shot made it through the posts.
Advantage England, but it was only temporary. Niamh Briggs soon responded in kind when the English were penalised. Sophie Spence and Jenny Murphy did their best to penetrate the English defence, but the visitors held firm in the face of a relentless green onslaught.
In response, Ruth Laybourn threatened to break away but it was Harriet Millar-Mills who made good use of a powerful scrum to crash over the line – though once again McLean’s conversion went astray. At half time, the score was Ireland 3 England 8.
The final 40 minutes couldn’t start quickly enough and to the delight of the Ashbourne crowd, Ireland dominated for the first 10 minutes, with the pressure rewarded with a try from quick tap and go by Larissa Muldoon.
The English were spurred into action, with vice captain Tamara Taylor working hard to get the ball deep into Irish territory, but handling errors cost the women in white on more than one occasion.
As the clock ticked down, Ireland were awarded a penalty and, six minutes from time, Niamh Briggs overcame cramp and slotted the kick to bring her side a well deserved 11-8 win, and is sure to strengthen their bid to host the Women’s World Cup in 2017.
Acting England coach Nicky Ponsford was gracious in defeat, and conceded that although England had come a long way since their opening defeat against Wales, the Irish had dealt better with the tricky conditions than the Irish.
And last but not least… It’s going to take more than a dose of good weather to help Scotland, who are on-course to claim the Six Nations Wooden Spoon for the second year in a row. Sunday saw them welcome Italy to Broadwood stadium and while there was still no chance of seeing the game on the TV, if you’re Scottish, perhaps it’s just as well.
The last time the two sides met, Scotland were comprehensively thumped 45-5. This time around, it took just six minutes for number 11 Maria Magatti to finish a line out set piece and put Italy on the road to victory. The conversion was neatly slotted by Veronica Schiavon, and it wasn’t long before the Italian backs were putting pressure on the Scots again. After another set-piece, a solid pass out to Michela Sillari saw the Italians score their second try, with the conversion bringing the score to 20-0.
Scottish fans breathed a sigh of relief when a penalty afforded Nuala Deans the chance to get three points on the board, only for Magatti to bring more misery upon the home side with another try.
Schiavon missed the conversion and in return the Scots forwards clawed their way to the Italian try line. However, a knock-on saw their chance of scoring vanish into the ether, before half time was sounded.
At the restart, despite torrential rain, it looked as though the gods were going to smile on the Scots as Italian second-row Flavia Severin was yellow carded, followed by team-mate Michela Este, who was sent off for not rolling away.
With their opponents now down to 13, it was the perfect time for Scotland to strike – but their hard-won penalty slid wide. The Italians then snatched possession and a flowing passage of play ended with Schiavon crossing the Scottish line.
The win puts Italy in a solid position to claim a place in their-first-ever Women’s World Cup.
Azurri coach Andrea di Giandomenico was delighted with his squad’s performance. He said:
“We really finished off the opportunities we had in our wider game where there was a lot of space.”
Meanwhile, Scotland coach Jules Maxton remained relentlessly positive despite her side’s poor showing in this year’s competition. She said:
“We were really pleased to score the try and it shows what we’re capable of as we know we can do it. The next job is to now score more as we lacked composure in crucial moments.”
Whether the Scots can keep their cool away to England remains to be seen…
Round Four fixtures:
Friday 13 March:
England v Scotland, kick off 7.35pm (GMT), Northern Echo Arena
Saturday 14 March:
Italy v France, kick off 5pm (GMT), Nuovi Impianti
Sunday 15 March:
Wales v Ireland, 12pm (GMT), St Helen’s
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