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John Mitchell’s new England pass French test and will only get better | Robert Kitson
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John Mitchell’s new England pass French test and will only get better | Robert Kitson

England’s head coach, John Mitchell, before this season’s Women’s Six Nations, could not have been any clearer on the subject of his squad’s ambitions. “The potential of this side is huge,” he told the Guardian. “We’ve been a very good team but we want to be an outstanding team.” The objective was not just to win games but to surpass anything they had previously achieved.

On the evidence of this latest coup de grace in Bordeaux that mission is firmly on track. A sixth successive Six Nations title and a third straight grand slam may look, at first glance, to be a mundane tale of the expected but this one stands out for several reasons. First, it was their first under Mitchell, whose familiar brand of no-nonsense Kiwi nous is already paying dividends. Second, it was clinched on French soil against decent opposition who kept coming and posed persistent problems.

Above all, though, it is the range of options at England’s disposal that are really striking. The best of the best possess an all-court game that can be tailored to all occasions. The Red Roses can hurt opponents at close range and tear them apart out wide. They can soar in the lineout and hit hard in midfield, too. The only real question surrounded their game-management under pressure and here was timely proof of the strides also being made in that vital area.

Think back to the last World Cup when they were ambushed at the last by the Black Ferns in that epic final in Auckland. England had stuck all their eggs in the same forward-heavy basket and, having been reduced to 14 players, allowed New Zealand to creep in and scramble their dreams. Eleven of that matchday 23 were involved here but there is a different vibe to what they are seeking to do.

There is also a more composed feel at half-back, where Mo Hunt adds experience and bustle, and a better balance all round. This time England did not have as many opportunities to employ their speedy back three but the centre pairing of Tatyana Heard and Meg Jones nicely complemented the power in front of them. Jones is a rarity as a Welsh-speaking England international but her interception try was priceless in any language.

John MitchellView image in fullscreen

Add in Amy Cokayne’s throwing, Morwenna Talling’s power and Alex Matthews’s relentless workrate and the net effect is that opponents cannot relax for a second even if they manage, as France did for long periods, to keep the ball away from the lightning-quick Abbie Dow and Ellie Kildunne. A total of 44 tries in five games tells its own convincing story.

Perhaps most ominously of all, England clearly have much improvement still left in them. The wonderful Sarah Bern, currently injured, was on summarising duty in Bordeaux but will be back for the World Cup. So will the needle-sharp Claudia MacDonald. Fitness levels are improving all the time and defensively there are still some areas to tighten up.

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But all that, in some ways, is relative. Judging by the crowded stands at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, the appetite for women’s rugby is growing everywhere. It will be interesting to see the TV viewing figures, with a terrestrial tea-time audience treated to a game that always held the attention in some shape or form. Brian Moore apologising to viewers of a France-England game for on-field bad language will certainly have raised a wry smile on both sides of the Channel.

A sport’s popularity, though, ultimately hinges on how much the outcome truly matters to the viewer. Which is rugby’s next big challenge: how to ensure an element of jeopardy in a higher percentage of games? There have been a few too many lop-sided scorelines for comfort and there is clearly still a debate to be had about how best to broaden the competitiveness of the Six Nations and not just mirror how the men operate.

But that is for another day. This was another delicious memory for England to cherish and the future could be even brighter. By the latter stages of next year’s World Cup, at this rate, there will be teenage girls popping into their local hairdressers to request an ‘Ellie Kildunne’ or a ‘Holly Aitchison’. And Twickenham will be packed to the rafters with an entirely different breed of supporter. These high-flying Red Roses could bloom into something extra special.

Source: theguardian.com