England Women were crowned Nations Cup champions last night (Wednesday) after a bonus point victory against South Africa in the third round on the round-robin tournament in Toronto.
The Red Roses, who are also the reigning RBS 6 Nations champions, clinched the title for the second year on the bounce despite a slightly mediocre performance against the Springboks. And with Canada losing 15-10 to the USA last night also, England now have an unassailable lead going into the final round on Saturday against hosts Canada.
England had to work hard for the win and failed to put a point on the board until the 30th minute of the game. It was South Africa that started the game brightly, putting pressure on England and pinning them into their own half. The Springboks were the first to create opportunities but with England defending well they prevented them from scoring also. And with South Africa missing an early penalty England slowly clawed their way back into the game.
Worcester wing Kat Merchant, who scored a hat-trick of tries in England's victory over France, broke England's duck on 34 minutes when some good clean ball from a line-out saw the ball moved out to the mid-field. A good drive then saw the ball recycled out to the backs and with Saracens' Charlotte Barras executing a good pass she put Merchant into space for an easy finish. Richmond's Alice Richardson successfully struck the conversion and then a penalty moments later to hand England a 10-0 lead at half-time.
The second-half was, however, a different story for England and they dominated rarely letting South Africa out of their half. With 45 minutes gone on the clock, vice-captain Barras added England's second try. It was Saracens' Claire Allan who made the break, followed by some excellent work by the pack. The ball was then popped out to the backs who moved the ball down the line quickly to create space for Barras to dive over in the corner.
A lightning break down the right wing by Merchant and then a clever chip up field then saw Saracens' Rachael Burford collect and score her first try of the tournament handing England a 20-0 lead.
The Springboks continued to cause England problems, and although they couldn't cross the line, England continued to make some basic errors leaving them having to wait until the 80th minute of the game to wrap up the victory and the tournament win with full back Barras pouncing on the ball and sprinting past the Boks' last line of defence to score.
England Head Coach Gary Street: "I'm disappointed with the number of unforced errors we made during the game. This made it difficult for us but full credit must go to South Africa who took the game to us especially in the first half.
"We are delighted that we have won the tournament for the second year, and to do it away from home too against some very competitive competition. It has given us a very useful insight into where we are ahead of a World Cup year, but there is still one game to go and we must improve on this performance against Canada on Saturday and come back stronger."
England Captain Catherine Spencer added: "South Africa were very tough physical opponents and we had to dig deep for our 25 points. We didn't play our best game and made too many basic errors. Having said that we have played some very good rugby over our last three games and we have won the Nations Cup."
15 Charlotte Barras (VC) (Saracens), 14 Katherine Merchant (Worcester), 13 Claire Allan (Saracens), 12 Rachael Burford (Saracens), 11 Fiona Pocock (Richmond), 10 Alice Richardson (Richmond), 9 Georgina Rozario (Plymouth Albion) 1 Claire Purdy (Wasps), 2 Olivia Poore (Lichfield), 3 Katy Storie (Team Northumbria), 4 Becky Essex (Richmond) 5 Jo McGilchrist (Wasps), 6 Karen Jones(Richmond), 7 Heather Fisher (Wasps), 8 Catherine Spencer C (Bristol). Replacements:16 Amy Garnett (Saracens), 17 Sophie Hemming (Bristol), 18 Rochelle Clark (Team Northumbria)), 19 Gemma Sharples (Worcester), 20 Amy Turner (Richmond), 21 Danielle Waterman (Team Northumbria), 22 Kim Oliver (Bristol)
Tries: Merchant, Barras (2) Burford
Substitutions: Turner for Rozario, Waterman for Pocock (44), Garnett for Poore, Sharples for Fisher (49), Hemming for Storie, Clark for Purdy (59), Oliver for Allan (68).
Nations Cup tournament table
England P3 15pts
USA P3 9pts
Canada P3 7pts
France P3 6pts
South Africa P4 2pts
– but the sailors praise the new boats