The Red Roses have booked their place in the World Cup semi-finals with a 47 – 26 win over the USA in their final pool match. Tries from McLean, Scarratt, Packer (2), Wilson Hardy and Cokayne, plus a penalty try, saw England safely through to the knock-out stages, but their opponents are also through after scoring a late bonus-point try.
The Red Roses started the match well, putting defensive pressure on the USA and forcing a penalty, but Scarratt missed the posts from a relatively easy position.
Soon enough, though, England had their first try after completely dominating the USA at the scrum. An American put-in on their own 5 metre line was turned over by a fantastic drive from the English forwards and they were awarded the penalty. McLean kicked to the corner and from the resultant line-out England set up the rolling maul, which looked like it would steam over the line, but it was brought down illegally by the USA. With the advantage, McLean got the ball and dribbled a kick through, which was met by an onrushing Emily Scarratt who touched down to open England’s account. She added the conversion to make it a seven-point lead.
The Red Roses got their second try after the USA again took down the rolling maul illegally, the referee awarding a penalty try, and with Scarratt adding the extras England stretched their lead. Hooker Augustyn was the guilty party and she was sin-binned, leaving the USA a player down for the next ten minutes.
Everything seemed to be working for England; the line-out, with Cokayne and Taylor back at the helm, was working beautifully, the scrum was dominating and McLean was pinning the USA in their own half with probing kicks behind the back three.
All that pressure resulted in another England try, this time the rolling maul making it over the line. Flanker Marlie Packer came up with the ball, and with Scarratt converting again England led 21 – 0.
The USA weren’t about to give up, though, and they strung some good phases together, their big forwards charging at the England line and making some ground. The Red Roses’ defence held firm and lock Emily Scott, who had a great game, got over the ball and won a penalty for holding on.
McLean punted the penalty kick into the corner, and when the resultant line-out went to Taylor, she set up a maul. Again, the USA had no answer to England’s power, and Packer went over for her second of the afternoon. Scarratt, who seemed to have put on her kicking boots this match, converted and the Red Roses led 28 – 0 after just twenty five minutes of play.
The USA hit back, though, and very nearly had a try of their own through winger Thomas, but great work from Wilson Hardy among others held her up over the line. With the Americans looking more dangerous in attack the Red Roses had to work hard to hold them out. The USA earned a scrum on England’s 5 metre line and they finally got their first try through flanker Kate Zackary, who went over from close range. Fly-half Alev Kelter converted the score and the Americans deservedly had some points on the board.
The Red Roses reverted to kicking, McLean and Scarratt again pinning the USA back with good long kicks into space, and right on half time England scored their fifth try. Wary of the threats out wide, the American defence pushed too wide, and when those closest to the ruck rushed up, they left a big gap in front of England fly-half McLean, who ran in to score. Scarratt missed the conversion, but the Red Roses entered the changing rooms at half time with a very healthy lead, having scored five tries to the USA’s one.
The second half started as the first had ended, Abbie Scott breaking through some tackles and charging downfield before some simple draw-and-pass and straight running from the England backs saw Amy Wilson Hardy run in unopposed. Scarratt, whose kicking from the tee seemed to have improved immeasurably from the last two games, knocked the conversion over and England led 40 – 7.
Five minutes later, England had another line-out on the USA’s five metre line, and once again Tamara Taylor won the ball in the air and set up the driving maul. The England forwards powered over the line and hooker Amy Cokayne scored the try. Scarratt converted again to make the score 47 – 7.
However, the threat of an annihilation seemed to galvanise the USA, and they began to string the phases together in attack and stretch the English defence. Their quick back three, wing Naya Tapper in particular, made some good ground and when the USA won a scrum in England’s half, she and centre Kelter showed good strength to bust through some tackles and get over the gain-line into the 22. Tapper was brought down just short of the line, but full-back Cheta Emba picked the ball up and dotted it down for the USA’s second score.
The Americans were certainly enjoying most of the possession during this period, but the English defence was holding up well, leaving no gaps for the USA’s dangerous outside backs to exploit. That was until wing Tapper glided through a gap and sped past Waterman to score a lovely solo try, her speed too much for the defence. Kelter converted and the Americans had brought some respectability back to the scoreline, which was 47 – 19 in England’s favour.
While the USA were getting into the game, England were getting sloppier, conceding penalties which allowed the Americans to gain field position through kicks to touch. The Americans drove into the English 22, and for the first time this tournament put the Red Roses under some sustained pressure. Their defence held up, though, their tackling and organisation both solid, and they stopped their opposition from gaining any ground, the pressure eventually forcing them to kick the ball away.
But the Americans came right back at them. Once again, though, the Red Roses’ defence stood firm and forced the knock-on.
However, the USA would not give up in their quest for a bonus-point try, and with eighty minutes on the clock, wing Thomas showed her sublime pace, racing out of her own half and swerving past Waterman to touch down and ensure that the USA advanced to the semi-finals.
With Kelter converting the try, the final score was 47 – 26 to the Red Roses, and both teams are deservedly through to the knock-out stages.
England: 47 (33)
Tries – Scarratt, Penalty try, Packer 2, Mclean, Wilson Hardy, Cokayne Conversions – Scarratt 5, Penalty Try
USA: 26 (7)
Tries – Zackary, Emba, Tapper, Thomas Conversions – Kelter 3
POTM: The forward pack were immense in this game, both as a unit and individually. The scrum put an enormous amount of pressure on the USA; the line-out, led by the outstanding Tamara Taylor and hooker Amy Cokayne, was back to its best, and the maul was a thing of beauty. Prop Sarah Bern ran well, as did Marlie Packer and Alex Matthews, and in defence Sarah Hunter was a tackling machine and a constant nuisance at the breakdown, winning a couple of turnovers. But my POTM award goes to lock Abbie Scott. In both attack and defence she excelled: breaking the line, winning turnovers at the breakdown, ripping the ball away in the tackle, and neutralising the USA’s maul, as well as contributing to England’s own mauling prowess. She had a massive game.
So, England are through the pool stages with three good wins from three games played. They will be pretty happy with that, but even a victory as straightforward as this one against the USA has highlighted areas in which the Red Roses can improve.
Firstly, the positives, and there were a lot of them – for one thing, the handling errors which blighted England’s game against Italy were much reduced, and with McLean starting at fly-half they seemed a lot more sure of themselves in attack. McLean and Scarratt’s kicking from hand is also a big plus point, as they repeatedly gained field position and kept the Americans pinned back in their own half with probing kicks which more often than not found the turf.
And Emily Scarratt finally found her place-kicking mojo, converting 5/6 tries and although she missed a relatively easy penalty attempt early on, she didn’t let that phase her. In the knockout stages the games are sure to be closer than what we’ve seen so far in England’s matches, and place kicks will be much more important in deciding the final score, so it’s good to see that Scarratt’s found some form in this area.
For all the gushing I’ve done about the backs over the past couple of matches, this was a game in which England’s forward pack really came into their own, dominating the scrum and line-out and scoring three tries through their maul, as well as earning a penalty try when it was illegally brought down. The driving maul was crucial to England’s Six Nations campaign, and it looks as though it will take some stopping in this tournament, too.
Coupled with the success of the maul is the improvement of the line-out. Hooker Amy Cokayne’s throws in this game were accurate and impressive considering she threw to the back of the line-out on a couple of occasions, and the lifters worked well to get the likes of Tamara Taylor up into the air and then back down quickly. The line-out is key to the set-up of the rolling maul – a good throw, a good catch and good organisational skills on the ground ensure that players get around the ball-carrier quickly and protect the ball, passing it to the back of the maul and stopping the opposition from wrapping up the line-out jumper and the ball as soon as she’s back on the floor. With Cokayne throwing and Taylor jumping, England had the perfect platform to set up their powerful drive – these two are key to its success.
The Red Roses’ defence was also, for the most part, effective. For large periods of the second half the USA were camped in the English 22, and while they scored four tries, overall England’s defence was up to the task and their organisation and tackle completion ensured that the USA didn’t have too many holes to run into. England made over 120 tackles in this game, and while they missed 15, that’s still an 89% tackle completion rate. Additionally, the USA only made six clean breaks, so it seems that there was often someone close by to make a cover tackle if the initial tackler missed, which is good news for England’s defensive organisation.
They will be disappointed that they let in a couple of tries towards the end of the game, but with the match won they may have been saving energy (at least, let’s hope that’s the case). Plus, the USA are no walkovers and their loose forwards, particularly Gray and Zackary, and their back three caused England a few problems in defence. The USA are deserved semi-finalists and hopefully, with rugby becoming a varsity sport next year, they will kick on from this tournament and become a real force in women’s rugby. The foundations are certainly there.
As for England, they now have a semi-final against France to think about. While they beat them in the Six Nations this year, the French have improved since then and will be a far tougher opponent than any the Red Roses have faced so far.
Photo credit: The Guardian