England are the Grand Slam champions after beating fellow contenders Ireland 34 – 7 in Dublin.
As the game kicked off, it was clear that the weather would be a significant factor in the outcome. It was wet and very windy, making the ball very greasy and hampering kicking.
England started well, with plenty of territory and possession in Ireland’s half, but the home team’s defence was strong and kept the Red Roses scoreless until the sixteenth minute. Some excellent carries from prop Rocky Clarke got England up to the Irish five-metre line, before the ball was whipped out wide to Emily Scarratt. She spotted the narrow Irish defence and threw a lovely long pass out to winger Wilson Hardy, who dotted down in the corner unchallenged. Although Scarratt missed the conversion, England finally had some points on the board for all their pressure.
However, the Irish came back strongly and really tested England’s defence. Only a fantastic Marlie Packer tackle stopped centre Sene Naoupu going in for a try under the posts, and the half ended with England leading by just 5 points to 0.
Ireland had the wind at their backs in the second half, but it was the Red Roses who struck first. Although camped in the Irish 22, they couldn’t break through the hosts’ strong defence until Sarah Hunter ran a lovely line to get within four metres of the try line. With quick ball, Marlie Packer charged forward and was only stopped from scoring by a fantastic cover tackle. The Irish defence were scrambling now, and prop Keates picked the ball up from the back of the ruck and dived over to score England’s second try.
Things went from bad to worse for the Irish, as replacement full back Mairead Coyne was judged to have deliberately knocked the ball on and was yellow-carded. Scarratt had made a break into the Irish 22 and tried to pass to Waterman, but Coyne got a hand to the ball, putting an end to an almost-certain try. Scarratt knocked over the resultant penalty, making the score 13 – 0.
England made the most of their advantage, prop Justine Lucas doing well to catch a poor Irish kick and offloading to Poppy Cleall, who in turn offloaded to hooker Amy Cokayne. She showed great pace to score from the halfway line, and the Red Roses were looking good for the Grand Slam.
However, from the resultant kick-off, England tried to run the ball out of their 22. Ireland turned it over at the ruck and some strong carries from the forwards and centre Jenny Murphy led to hooker Leah Lyons going over for the try. Winger Tyrrell added the extras and Ireland were in with a chance.
That was extinguished just four minutes later when Danielle Waterman fielded a kick and beat two defenders, before offloading to replacement scrum-half Bianca Blackburn. She passed back inside to Kay Wilson, who in turn offloaded to Emily Scarratt, who sprinted through a splintered defence to score the bonus-point try. She converted her score and England were suddenly 20 points ahead.
With seven minutes to go, the Red Roses secured their Grand Slam with another try, winger Lydia Thompson receiving a lovely flat pass from Scarratt and beating her opposite number on the outside. With one to beat and Waterman inside her, Thompson dummied and sprinted in under the posts. Scarratt converted, and when the final whistle blew a few minutes later, England were confirmed as the Grand Slam champions.
POTM: Again, lots of candidates. Substitutes Vicky Fleetwood and Bianca Blackburn performed well, Blackburn in particular upping the pace and getting England moving forward with her quick play at the rucks. However, Emily Scarratt was once again involved in everything good for the Red Roses, her passing out wide the source of a couple of tries and her running game again prominent. She missed a few kicks, but the weather didn’t do her any favours, and she scored a try to make up for it.
England 34 (5)
Tries: Wilson Hardy, Keates, Cokayne, Scarratt, Thompson Cons: Scarratt (3) Pen: Scarratt
Ireland 7 (0)
Tries: Lyons Cons: Tyrrell
This was always going to be an extremely tough match, and with the weather conditions adding extra difficulty, the Red Roses did extremely well to come away with such a resounding win.
While they struggled to score in the first half despite all their territory, the Irish defence held out well and refused to give them easy metres. Additionally, they were ferociously competitive at the rucks and their line speed was excellent, shutting England’s backs down before they could get the ball into the wide channels where they are so dangerous. The fact that the Red Roses led by only five points at half time is a credit to the Irish defence.
The second half was a different story, though, as England moved through the gears to score four tries. The Irish seemed to drop off in defence somewhat, missing tackles and failing to compete at the rucks. Perhaps this was due to fatigue, but it allowed England to up the pace and catch the defence off guard. They really exposed Ireland’s right hand side, scoring three tries down that flank.
In the last ten minutes or so, it was clear that England were getting into their groove, the offloading and support play which has been a feature of their game over the championship leaving the Irish defence chasing shadows. They excel at supporting the runner and their handling was again top notch on a wet night.
They also managed to overcome their traditional drop-off in performance mid-way through the second half, as they instead seemed to up the intensity and put the game beyond doubt, scoring three tries between 50 and 70 minutes.
In terms of individual performances, unfortunately fly-half Emily Scott didn’t have the greatest of games and was substituted at half time. She is a deadly runner with pace to burn, but with the conditions as they were, a more pragmatic, cautious player at ten was needed. It’s a shame, as she is a fine player, but when Amber Reed stepped into fly-half in the second half, England looked more organised and controlled. With Katy McLean coming back into the side for the June series in New Zealand, Scott will probably play from the bench which may suit her better as she will be able to use her running game against tired defences.
One who impressed was captain and Number 8 Sarah Hunter. She’s a grafter, getting through an enormous amount of work at the breakdown and tackling, and Friday night’s performance was no different. She tackled any Irish attacker that came anywhere near her, and was a constant menace at the breakdown, slowing the Irish ball down and giving England’s defence a split-second more to get organised. She was also the catalyst for Lucas’ try, picking a beautiful line that put the Irish defence on the back foot.
Substitute scrum-half Bianca Blackburn also impressed. She’s a live-wire and her speed of service at the ruck helped England to start breaking down the strong Irish defence in the second half.
In terms of the English defence, it did well to keep Ireland out for the majority of the game. The Irish attack is fearsome on its day, and their forward pack is full of big, strong, abrasive runners. That they made metres through pick and drives is no real surprise, and England generally dealt well with them. They also neutralised the Irish centre partnership of Naoupu and Murphy, who were probably Ireland’s best players on the night.
So, the Red Roses are Grand Slam champions, the best women’s team in Europe. They’ve done what they set out to do at the beginning of the tournament and have played some great rugby along the way. They should be full of confidence as they look ahead to the challenges to come – a tour to New Zealand to play the Black Ferns, Canada and Australia in June, before a return to Ireland in August for the World Cup. While some undoubtedly tough tests lie ahead, for the next few days at least, England can savour their well-deserved Grand Slam triumph.