England have started their World Cup defence in the best possible way as they eased to a 56 – 5 win in their opening match against Spain. They ran in ten tries, four of them to wing Kay Wilson who was once again in prolific form.
The Red Roses were out of the blocks early, their first score coming barely a minute into the match when young centre Megan Jones burst through a weak Spanish tackle and then stepped past the full back to score under the posts. McLean converted and England were off to the perfect start.
They almost had a second a minute later, but the Television Match Official (TMO) judged that Kay Wilson knocked the ball on trying to ground it for the try and Spain were awarded the scrum. However, the England pack drove the Spanish off the ball and Hunter attacked the short side. Quick hands from McLean saw the ball go out to Wilson, and this time she made sure she got it down. McLean nailed the conversion from the touchline and put the Red Roses fourteen points up.
Spain needed to get their act together quickly and luckily they stepped up their defensive efforts, winning turnovers at the breakdown and putting in big hits on the English forwards. The Red Roses certainly tested them, but they held firm and even managed to force England backwards a couple of times.
However, the Red Roses were also finding big gaps in Spain’s defence and soon had their third try, a pinpoint McLean crossfield kick finding Wilson in acres of space; she caught the ball and promptly dotted it down for her second try.
Spain continued to defend manfully, competing hard at the breakdown and forcing the Red Roses to commit more players to rucks. They also showed some of their attacking prowess, breaking the line a couple of times, but they lacked composure, kicking the ball away in good positions or throwing wayward passes.
Just after the half-hour mark, Wilson was in for her hat-trick after the forwards pressured the Spanish at the line-out and won the ball. They sucked in the defence with some pick-and-gos and when the ball was spun out wide, Wilson had the space and the strength to bump off her opposite number and score. McLean missed the conversion, but the Red Roses had their bonus-point try and were leading 24 – 0.
Spain hit back with a try of their own, a loose England pass pounced on by fly-half Garcia who hacked downfield, two England players on her tail. They beat her to the ball but knocked on, and Garcia took the quick tap penalty. As the Red Roses struggled to get back onside, Spain passed the ball out to the right where blindside flanker Gasso slid over for a try which was particularly well-received by the crowd. With Garcia missing the conversion, the score remained 24 – 5.
England had one more chance to score in the first half when they won a penalty and kicked for the corner, but the resultant line-out was poor and Spain came away with the ball.
The start of the second half saw Emily Scarratt come on, and she made an immediate impression, gliding between two defenders to score England’s fifth try a couple of minutes into the second half.
And Spain found themselves back on their own try line a few minutes later when England were awarded a scrum, but the Spanish forwards showed great strength, very nearly pushing the Red Roses off their own ball. Some good work from Number 8 Sarah Hunter kept England in possession, though, and they attacked the fringes of the ruck with big forward carries, hammering away at the Spanish line. Spain again defended well, but when flanker Harriett Millar-Mills ran at fly-half Garcia there was only going to be one winner, and Millar-Mills added her name to the scoresheet, stretching the Red Roses’ lead to 29 points.
Centre Megan Jones was one of a number of England players having a good game, and she tidied up a loose pass before beating a couple of defenders with some lovely footwork, making her way into the Spanish 22. A few phases later, a lovely long pass from Burford found Wilson once more in acres of space, and she had an easy run-in for England’s seventh try of the afternoon. Scarratt, who had taken over kicking duties from McLean, missed the conversion, but the Red Roses led by 39 points to 5.
England’s line-out was certainly not functioning well, costing them possession a couple of times, and when a third English line-out in a row went wrong on Spain’s five-metre line, it seemed as though they’d wasted the opportunity. However, excellent pressure at the ruck led to Garcia attempting a hasty clearance kick in her own in-goal area. She was charged down by substitutes Amy Cokayne and Alex Matthews, the latter managing to get a hand to the ball and ground it for another England try. Scarratt knocked the conversion over from a relatively difficult angle.
Cokayne got a try of her own with fifteen minutes to go after an England line-out finally went to plan and the Red Roses’ famous rolling maul steamed over the try line. Scarratt missed the conversion, but England had passed fifty points and were on course for a good win.
In the final ten minutes it was the English defence rather than their attack which impressed the most, as they kept Spain trapped in their own 22. The pressure told, and the Spanish knocked the ball on, handing England a scrum. Spain then compounded their error by conceding a penalty at the scrum, and the Red Roses took the quick tap. They spread the ball wide and Cokayne and Jones went close to scoring before some solid drives from the forwards sucked in the Spanish defence. Scrum-half Riley span the ball out wide and winger Lydia Thompson went over for a simple score. Although Scarratt missed the conversion, the Red Roses were well clear and when the final whistle blew a couple of minutes later, they had won 56 – 5.
England 56 (24)
Tries: Jones, Wilson (4), Millar-Mills, Scarratt, Matthews, Cokayne, Thompson Conversions: McLean (2), Scarratt
Spain 5 (5)
POTM: Lots of players had great games – in the forwards, Harriet Millar-Mills again impressed, while prop Sarah Bern also had some strong runs and captain Sarah Hunter was her typical self, getting through a ton of grunt work and popping up at all the right times to tidy up loose ball or make a vital tackle. In the backs, Kay Wilson again had a great game, scoring four tries, and centre Megan Jones was very impressive, showcasing her fancy footwork and putting in some big hits. But there was one player who stood out even among all those good performances, and that is fly-half Katy McLean. She ran the English attack perfectly, taking the ball to the line and throwing lovely flat passes – I lost count of the number of times she put people into holes with those passes. She broke the line, she took a superb catch and then plowed through a couple of Spanish defenders, she put in some beautiful kicks downfield, not to mention that crossfield kick for Wilson’s second try, and all-in-all had a fantastic match. The only slight black mark is her goal-kicking, but when you’re playing so well and setting up so many tries, what does that matter? (see: a certain current male World Player of the Year…)
Firstly, how great is it to be watching the World Cup? After all these months of preparation and anticipation (I’m sure Wednesday 9th August has been circled on your calendar since the World Cup dates were announced), we can finally see the best teams in women’s rugby compete for the right to call themselves world champions. I sincerely hope you’re able to watch as much of the action as possible over the coming fortnight.
Now, onto the match. It was a pleasing performance from the Red Roses in many ways. In attack players were coming onto the ball at pace, they looked well-organised, their handling was almost perfect and they ran in ten tries. What was also impressive was the way they adapted to the Spanish defence. England love to get the ball out wide where they’re so dangerous, and they often rely on a quick recycle of the ball at rucks, getting the ball away before the defence has time to get organised and disrupt the breakdown. However, the Spanish competed well at the breakdown, slowing the ball down and forcing England to commit more players in order to secure possession. This meant that Spain had time to get organised in defence and cover any space out wide.
However, the Red Roses turned this to their advantage, using pick-and-gos and having pods of forwards carry the ball into contact around the fringes of the ruck. This both sucked in Spanish defenders and ensured that there were England players already at the ruck to secure possession before Spain could get their hands on it, ensuring that the ball was recycled quickly and thus allowing scrum-half Riley to get it out wide to the likes of Scarratt and Wilson, who could then exploit the space created by their forwards.
Their defence was also solid, particularly in the last fifteen minutes or so when they pinned Spain back in their own 22 and forced them into making errors. They worked hard to cover the width of the pitch, as Spain were fond of throwing long passes across the field, and very much limited their opponent’s scoring opportunities, which showed in the scoreline.
In terms of improvements, the line-out is most certainly at the top of the list. Poor throwing, poor co-ordination, lack of communication – it all went wrong for England and this is one area that needs serious work. Perhaps the return of first-choice hooker Amy Cokayne and lock Tamara Taylor, who is a leader at the line-out, will go some way to solving these issues, but England cannot have another performance as poor as that one in this tournament.
The scrum didn’t look convincing either, and England nearly lost their own put-in a couple of times save for the quick thinking and handling of Sarah Hunter at Number 8. Of course, the Spanish are no mugs at scrum-time, but the Red Roses will face stronger packs in this tournament and they can’t afford to be shoved off their own ball.
Other than those two areas, the Red Roses can be satisfied with the way they played. Spain did test them at times and despite shipping ten tries, their defence was well-organised and their tackling accurate. It will certainly be interesting to see how they fare against Italy in their match later on in the competition seeing as they were dropped from the Six Nations in favour of the Azzurri.
But the Italians will first have to play against England on Sunday, and while the Red Roses have got off to a good start, there’s still an awful long way to go in this World Cup if they want to be champions once again.
Image credit: BBC