England Women’s dominance of European rugby continued with England securing a record breaking seventh successive Six Nations crown and a sixth Grand Slam in seven years despite Ireland producing one of their best performances ever against the reigning champions.
Held at 6-all at the break with Katy McLean and Niamh Briggs’ boot putting the points on the board, England showed their calibre to shake off a dogged Ireland side, who were enjoying their best ever Six Nations. Captain Katy McLean touched down for a vital try mid-way through the second-half, while a push over try for substitute Amy Turner in the last ten minutes then sealed the 23-6 victory.
The final championship test for England proved the toughest test of all with Ireland living up to their billing this season. But for England it has been a season to remember; not only rewriting the Six Nations record books with a seventh title and becoming the first ever championship side not to concede a try but also because of their double victory over the world champions New Zealand in the autumn.
England Head Coach Gary Street said: "I am as proud of this squad as much as I am pleased. The players have worked so hard and it is not easy mentally to keep being expected to win the Six Nations. We expected this championship to be our toughest and it has been, and that can only be good for women’s rugby. We need tough games and we want spectators to see a real contest.
“I am really pleased with how we have been tactically against France and Ireland in the last two rounds. We had a very strong game plan and today we didn’t show our hand early on, we stayed patient, which was key, as we knew that our bench would make a real impression and our fitness would tell.
“We expected the first half to be as tough as it was. We knew Ireland would hold us as they had a real chance of winning the Six Nations and the first 40 minutes was always going to be a real slog fest. It was really important that we didn’t panic because we weren’t dominating the first half like we usually do but we were always really confident that our fitness levels and our bench would do the final bit of talking and finish the job off. That happened as we dominated the next 40 minutes and showed real control.”
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Ireland were first to put some points on the board with centre Briggs converting a fourth minute penalty. The visitors also piled the pressure on England’s defence from the off, making the most of all their opportunities. A loose ball at the base of an England scrum saw Ireland take advantage and get the ball out-wide and only some crunching tackles by Rachael Burford and Margaret Alphonsi prevented an early touch down.
England also had their chances and wing Katherine Merchant, returning from injury, looked sharp taking some nice breaks and scrambling her way through some tough tackles to get the home side into threatening positions. Full back Emily Scarratt, fly half McLean and centre Kim Oliver also made some good breaks but Ireland defended staunchly to stop England scoring. In the end England had to settle for three points, with McLean stroking over a 19th minute penalty to even the score to 3-3.
Going into the final ten minutes of the first half England and Ireland both battled hard but neither could break each other’s try line and instead both McLean and Briggs exchanged penalties to make the score 6-6 at half time.
The second half started off with the same high intensity and Ireland continued to stop England from putting together the phases of play they needed to create their trademark scoring opportunities. England, however, did make the most of their chances at goal with Scarratt this time striking a big penalty kick 42 minutes in.
Nearing the final quarter a break finally came England’s way when the home side took their chances and outwitted Ireland’s defence. Scarratt looked set to take an offload from McLean but instead the England captain showed some great footwork to cut a great line and dive over to score a crucial try on 58 minutes. With McLean converting her own try, England had a created a ten point cushion and a 16-6 lead.
Street continued to ring the changes, putting some fresh legs on to the field. Ireland, however, could no longer cope with England’s strength and fitness and it told as they started to give away penalties. They were let off the hook with both Scarratt and McLean missing two kicks, but in the end they couldn’t stop England from going over for their second touchdown.
Some sustained pressure in Ireland’s 22 saw their defence worn down as replacement Michaela Staniford and Scarratt went close, but in the end it was hooker Amy Turner, who had just come on, who diminished Irish hopes as she barged her way over the try line with the help of her pack on 72 minutes. McLean added the conversion handing England a 23-6 lead.
Despite the clock ticking down Ireland continued to battle hard and had their chance in the dying minutes with a scrum in England’s 22. But the home side’s defence was as solid as ever and England’s turned them over in the last play of the game to take a very sweet championship victory.
Street added: “For us the biggest challenge is always ourselves. Myself, the backroom and support staff don’t ever stand still and that is a tremendous credit to them. It is going to be a great night tonight but tomorrow is going to be another day. We are always striving to improve and we will be back in the video room in the morning trying to find out how we can improve.”
photos Janos Schmidt