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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Six Nations-shattering England turn to Black Ferns challenge at World Cup | Women’s Six Nations

There was an obvious determination among England’s grand slam winners to savour the moment after completing their clean sweep against France on Saturday but it was back to reality soon enough for Simon Middleton’s side.

England teams tend to travel with British Airways – one of the Rugby Football Union’s sponsors – but the airline does not fly from Biarritz and it was an early start and a lengthy coach journey the morning after the night before. For whatever reason no extra flight was chartered.

It serves as a reminder that for all the progress made during the competition – two record crowds in Leicester and Gloucester and a sold-out stadium in Bayonne on Saturday, not to mention a peak BBC Two audience of 700,000 – there is much more to be made.

England can at least take solace that in every other facet they exude professionalism and this Six Nations triumph in which they scored 45 tries, conceding just four, may yet prove to be a significant moment in the history of the sport.

For it has jolted their rivals into belated action over contracting players and, though the gap is a chasm between England, France and the rest there now seems a will to act. The image of Ireland’s Aoife McDermott back at work the day after facing England has endured and Sarah Bern, scorer of two of the Red Roses’ tries on Saturday, issued a warning over the welfare of players who face such situations.

“I have a lot of friends who play for Wales, Scotland and Ireland [and] it is really hard work,” she said. “Things need to change not just for the rugby but for the girls’ own mental health. I’m always there to fight for their corner because I think everyone should have equal opportunity.”

If change is coming, it is unlikely to bear fruit on the pitch before the World Cup this autumn – and it can be said with some certainty that England, France or New Zealand will be crowned champions in Auckland in November.

The victory for England on Saturday was telling in that regard because, while France were competitive, Middleton’s side remain a cut above. It would be no surprise, though, if he spent much of the coach journey pondering recent events in New Zealand.

Simon Middleton and Rosie Galligan lift the Six Nations
Simon Middleton’s England completed the clean sweep in their latest Six Nations success. Photograph: Evan Treacy/Inpho/Shutterstock

The Black Ferns have won five of the past six World Cups but were emphatically beaten by both England and France last autumn. There were mitigating circumstances – the pandemic is the most obvious among them – but it has forced the union into considerable action. Wayne Smith has been appointed director of rugby, Sir Graham Henry is on board in a supporting role and Whitney Hansen – daughter of Steve – is among the assistants. Middleton, then, will be pitting his wits against three of the most famous names in All Black history.

“A lot has happened in the Black Ferns camp since the autumn,” he said. “We look at the moves they’ve made, it’s a massive mark of respect for the game. What will be interesting is how their new coaching structure changes them because it is a different sort of environment that you have to create. It’ll be interesting to see how they go but it’s exciting to pit your wits against coaches of that calibre.”

Middleton’s squad will return to their clubs this week but come July World Cup preparations will ramp up. England have warm-up Tests planned for September and there is already a realisation that improvements must be made before they leave for New Zealand. “We know what we’ve got to do to be classed as a great side but we’re getting there,” Middleton said.

Indeed, if England were defensively defiant against France and dominant at the set-piece, it was not a match that will live long in the memory. Middleton said: “We need to find a way to free the girls up so they feel like they can play a bit more.”

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It is a message not lost on his players, to which Bern’s determination attested: “To sit here and say we’ve got this in the bag would be stupid. We know there’s so much more we want to work on. New Zealand have got some brilliant coaches coming in. France we know will always come back for the fight.

“Everyone will turn up for the World Cup. We need to make sure we’re there and as turned up as everyone else.”

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