BP’s Blog : Part 2
The New Zealand tour : June 2017
Twenty-eight players – the regulation number for the World Cup – were selected for the much-anticipated trip to New Zealand for a 4-way International Series, involving Canada and Australia as well. This brought together the 1 st , 2 nd , 3 rd and 6 th ranked nations in the current World standings.
The bookies’ odds pre-tournament showed the Black Ferns and Red Roses as 11/10 joint favourites to win the World Cup.
The travelling squad comprised:
Sarah Bern (Bristol), Emily Braund (Lichfield), Rochelle Clark (Worcester Valkyries), Amy Cokayne (Lichfield), Vickii Cornborough (Aylesford Bulls), Vicky Fleetwood (Saracens), Sarah Hunter (Bristol) (capt), Heather Kerr (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks), Justine Lucas (Lichfield), Alex Matthews (Richmond), Harriet Millar-Mills (Lichfield), Izzy Noel-Smith (Bristol), Marlie Packer (Bristol), Abbie Scott (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks), Tamara Taylor (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks), Rachael Burford (Aylesford Bulls), Natasha Hunt (Lichfield), Megan Jones (Bristol), La Toya Mason (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks), Sarah McKenna (Saracens), Katy Mclean (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks), Amber Reed (Bristol), Leanne Riley (Aylesford Bulls), Emily Scarratt (Lichfield), Emily Scott (Saracens), Lydia Thompson (Worcester Valkyries), Danielle Waterman (Bristol) and Kay Wilson (Richmond).
Injury prevented Laura Keates, Poppy Cleall, Claire Allan, Fiona Pocock and Amy Wilson Hardy from travelling. Competition for places is so severe that the odd missing figure barely weakens the overall strength of the squad, but the likely prolonged absence of Keates, a reassuring presence in the No 3 shirt, means that her replacements on tour (Bern and Lucas) could put down a marker.
Unlike the other three squads, the Red Roses were quite used to being together over protracted periods. This was the benefit of the RFU’s provision of professional contracts in 2016. It meant more shared time, but, equally crucial, the chance to recuperate from the effects of a big match or a heavy training session, rather than clocking on at work the following morning. If other national unions were not already convinced of the rightness of this major step, by the end of the tournament they could no longer be in doubt. The only constraint is finance.
The principal aims for Simon Middleton and his staff were to win all three games and thereby take England to No 1 in the World rankings. In addition, they could run an eye over returners (Abbie Scott, Emily Braund and Alex Matthews), less established players (Jones, Kerr, Riley and McKenna) and of course the opposition They could try out new combinations and see which players adapted best to new positions. Middleton wanted to improve overall game management, especially by playing territory. One well-placed kick could save twenty tiring phases by ensuring the game was speedily moved deep into enemy territory. Amidst all the handling skills put on display, searching kicks from Mclean, Scarratt, Reed and Emily Scott – as well as occasional box kicks by Hunt and Mason – would put the opposition on the back foot.
England were lucky with the tournament draw. They met the weakest of the quartet, Australia, first, and the strongest, New Zealand, last. So after a 40-hour outward trip and a few days’ acclimatisation, they would be spared the toughest challenge. The 23-strong squads for each game were carefully considered. Two leading figures, the captain Hunter and Scarratt, stayed on the bench for the Australian baptism of fire. Mclean resumed her role as captain. This was the game for experiments: two fly-halves, Emily Scott and Megan Jones, switched to full-back and centre respectively. With only two recognised wingers on board, McKenna did the honours on the left wing and promptly showed her taste for the wide spaces by dotting down three tries.
Even so, the Wallaroos struck first, a prolonged attack leading to a try close to the posts. That setback seemed to have the necessary effect on the Red Roses. From then on, they consistently outplayed the opposition, marrying well-organised forward drives with sweeping moves out wide.
It is strange to witness any Australian sporting team not performing at a high level, but the emphasis down under has been laid firmly on the women’s 7s circuit. The Wallaroos walked off with gold medals at the Rio Olympics 2016 and consistently win tournaments in the World Series, but it comes at a cost: the XV’s squad is short of finance, playing strength and experience. At least it gave the Red Roses the chance to show off some dazzling moves. The forwards can handle the ball like backs; the backs can ruck like the pack. A balance of nine tries to one shows the gap in class, but it served to shut out any worries about being able to play proper rugby when the sun goes round the sky the wrong way.
Final result 53-10
The Maple Leafs of Canada would present a far stiffer challenge. They deserve huge credit for successfully keeping two spinning plates in the air at the same time: in 15s they were losing finalists in the last World Cup and stand third in world rankings, while consistently doing well on the 7s circuit, a double that neither England nor Australia can manage at present. The Red Roses beat them easily at home in November (39-6), but the game in Christchurch was to prove far tougher. The Roses’ management couldn’t put out its putative first XV here – nor did it want to – the game against the Black Ferns on 17 June was the decisive confrontation of the tour. Even so, it was a strong side that took the field. If there was one marginal disappointment, it came at outside-half: whether by design or not, Amber Reed seemed to lack the space and time to get her backs running in the early stages. Instead, she found herself forced back into traffic, where at least the pack could sort matters out. This stood in stark contrast to her showing in the 6N, where she happily switched from 12 to 10 to give Mclean the break she deserved.
It was tough going. Half a dozen players needed treatment during the first half as the two sides went hammer and tongs at each other. The Canadians were extremely unwilling to surrender possession of the ball. England had to maintain the strongest pressure for them to cough it up. The first moment of magic came when England won the ball against the head inside their 22. This time Reed sent the ball wide, Scarratt spotted space, accelerated and fed Thompson on the right wing. She evaded four tackles before being collared inside the enemy’s 22. The ball moved into midfield, where Abbie Scott completed a memorable passage of play by driving over at the left post.
For almost the only time on tour, England went distinctly short of possession up to half-time (15-10). Canada played effective keep-ball and England fell offside more than once. The second half was lit up by a dazzling solo try by Thompson. The ball was moved right from a ruck in midfield to Waterman who swung a take-and- give pass at her winger. It arrived somewhere to the left of her head. The effect was beneficial to her, not her opponents; two of them were wrong-footed as she paused to collect; she escaped their clutches, then began a mesmeric weave of increasing pace past floundering defenders – some statisticians have calculated seven of them – and she flew in close to the posts. But this wasn’t to be her last golden moment on tour.
Final result 27-20
The post-match verdict was ‘not pretty, but job done’. The drama was building. Who would be given the honour of facing the Black Ferns in the final encounter, a match to be played as a curtain raiser to the All Black Maori match against the British and Irish Lions? The selection obviously took into account both current form and freedom from injury:
5 Scott A.
8 Hunter (C)
Replacements: Cornborough, Fleetwood, Lucas, Noel-Smith, Mason, Scott E. Reed
This XV was remarkable in several respects. It contained no fewer than eleven members of the World Cup winning squad of 2014 (six of them had retired); it included six players over the age of thirty – shades of the disparaging ‘Dad’s Army’ slur that met the England men’s team in Australia in 2003! – yet the outstanding front row contained two players with a combined age of 39! The number of caps (1207) is unmatched by any other nation; even the 8-strong bench totalled over 300. The game was in the safe hands of the ablest woman referee, Amy Perrett, who had controlled that earlier World Cup final.
The crucial selections fell in favour of Burford (over Reed), Cokayne (over Fleetwood), Abbie Scott (over Millar-Mills) and Hunt (over Mason). But the nominated reserves could rest assured that any nodding by the first choices between this game and the hoped-for WC final in Belfast could see them speedily restored to favour.
The Red Roses made as perfect a start to the game as they could have dreamt of. Three times the ball was kicked deep into enemy territory; three times the Black Ferns tried to establish position. But Hunter drove back at them each time. The balance swung violently as Thompson rounded her opponent on the right wing and careered back infield. Two quick laterals, a ruck and the ball came out left. Long passes, reminiscent of the modern 7s game, gave Scarratt the hint of a gap. With Wilson acting as decoy on her outside, she accelerated through to touch down near the corner flag. New Zealand onlookers could only gasp as she then converted with a magnificent strike. Somewhere there’s a priceless photo of our hero diving over the line as a Kiwi spectator puts his head in his hands. Perfect bliss!
Playing time: 1 minute 58 seconds
It took a moment of brilliance from Kendra Cocksedge, the Ferns’ half-back, to even things up. For once, the Roses’ defensive line was marginally out of position. She spotted the gap, chipped through and beat the cover to touch down under the posts. It seemed unjust that the second quarter of the game saw her team leading 14-7, so little possession had they enjoyed. But once again, it was an interception that caused the upset. Scarratt made another break. As she went down in the tackle, she lobbed a pass towards Wilson on the left, but Portia Woodman, the most feared winger in women’s rugby, plucked it out of the air and dotted down 70 metres away.
‘Once again’ because this was at least the third such mishap in recent major games to befall the English. Against France in the 6 Nations, a stray pass allowed Shannon Izar to scoot away to score against the run of play. In the recent game against Canada, another attacking pass had fallen to Karen Paquin, the speedy flanker, who touched down at the other end of the ground. Yet no recriminations were held. This is the style and philosophy of the current England set-up. They all buy into it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The fact that Scarratt and Maclean were the two perpetrators meant no dirty looks. England went on to win all three games.
By the end of the first half, the Roses pack was showing its dominance. They drove a line-out maul to the 5-metre line. The Fern’s captain, Fiao’o Faamausili, saw a yellow card brandished in her face as she emerged from under a mass of bodies. A repeat performance by the Roses pack, and Abbie Scott dropped on the ball to score her third try in three games – quite some comeback after a long injury lay-off.
The second half belonged almost exclusively to the visitors. Rarely can a Kiwi side have been so deprived of possession and territory in a home fixture. Mclean pumped long kicks into dark corners and the pack grew ever more dominant in the wet. A golden moment came when the forwards presented La Toya Mason with another piece of possession close to the enemy line. Mclean had bravely moved back to the blind-side (on the right) with only Thompson outside her. She ran towards her, leaving the defenders in doubt. A long pass left Thompson and Woodman facing each other, one on one. In a moment of supreme confidence and skill, the English winger left her opponent sprawled on the deck to score in the corner. It wasn’t just the further five points on the debtor’s account: it was the way one of New Zealand’s heroines was dealt with.
From that moment on, the pack took over. They rumbled the Ferns backwards again and again. In one astonishing drive, they spewed four opponents out at the back of a driving maul, like sheaves of wheat behind a combine harvester. It was no surprise that they were responsible for the last two tries, but the manner of the scores was delightful. First, the Ferns’ forwards stood off a catch-and- take at a line-out, expecting Perrett to call offside for obstruction. But she and the English pack had read the small print of the law. Scott held the ball till she felt contact with the black shirts behind her, so the plot worked a treat. Even more satisfying was the twist they gave a later line-out. As the opposition set themselves for a similar rumble, Scott delivered the ball straight back to the front where Packer drove over the line with Matthews adding some horsepower behind. After 71 minutes, possession read an unlikely 27%-73% in England’s favour. Just to prove a point, a further line-out drive from five metres out gave Vicky Fleetwood a decisive try. 14-29.
One of the greatest strengths of New Zealand rugby over the decades has been their readiness to learn from perceived weaknesses and develop new patterns of play. It will be fascinating to see how far the Black Ferns manage to widen their skill-range between this Rotorua game and the World Cup in August. They looked a formidable unit as they trotted out for their haka at the start of the game. By the end, their forwards had come off a poor second best, and they hadn’t managed to give Woodman a single clear-cut chance to show her devastating pace on the wing. Thompson kept her on a short leash. The line-out had not worked. By contrast, Cokayne and Fleetwood were remarkably accurate in their handling of the wet ball, and the pack offered them so many possible targets: not only Scott, Taylor, Millar-Mills and Braund, but Hunter, Packer and Matthews too can be relied upon to claim ball. In the set scrum, the English pack was seldom on the back foot; at the ruck, the Ferns managed only a few drives to disconcert their opponents. The one try-scoring opportunity they created came at the very end of the game, when the result was beyond reclaim.
One glaring weakness of the Black Fern set-up is their lack of international competition. This was only their eighth match since the last World Cup. Their geographical isolation is obvious, but perhaps they could lengthen their stays abroad, in Canada, for example, during the Super series, and play their hosts in one or two extra games.
Both squads will obviously be stepping up their preparations for the showdown in Ireland. England will be brimming with confidence, but Pride is said to come before a Fall. They will assume that both Canada and New Zealand will provide even sterner challenges than in this series, so will not be carousing into the small hours. They hold distinct advantages; the professional set-up has been mentioned, but just as important is the sheer size and quality of the squad available. Any 23 Middleton decides to put out is likely to contain well over 1000 caps, and experience of that order is hard to counter.
The range of skills is remarkable. To watch Harriet Millar-Mills during the 6 Nations was to experience a player capable of playing anywhere in the second or back rows, winning clean line-out ball, making bullocking runs through midfield and feeding scoring passes to her winger wide out. Tamara Taylor rather enjoys selling dummies to unsuspecting backs.
Fleetwood and Cokayne run like wingers down wide channels. And all the players know they get full backing from the staff, especially when things go wrong. It is a refreshing approach that breeds optimism and a positive outlook. Middleton is aware that he will have to leave players behind who would be first choices for most of the other nations competing in Ireland. The untimely injuries to those players who didn’t join the trip to NZ almost certainly means they will miss the next flight too – assuming the injury list doesn’t extend further. So Allan, Cleall, Wilson Hardy and Keates may well rue their misfortune.
The English cause is advanced by the versatility of any 28 names selected. The props are willing to scrummage either side; the back five have played successfully in at least two positions. In the backs, players can fill in at fly-half, full-back, centre and wing against all but the best – and the Red Roses have recently beaten the best by eight points, while giving them a simple intercept try. The one exception to this is the No 9 shirt. Four players have worn it in the last twelve months with some distinction – in order of experience: Mason, Hunt, Blackburn and Riley. Blackburn’s absence from the tour must indicate that the other three will again get the nod. Riley would have to play exceptionally well in the pool games to have a chance of sitting on the bench in the final stages.
It is invidious to pick out one or two names for awards when the team ethic is so strong and there were so many outstanding performances. But if the management have a little red book with numbers 1-10 printed inside, there may well be a couple of ringed 10s for two Roses who played out of their skins: Abbie Scott and Lydia Thompson. Scott, returning after a protracted lay-off; might well have thought her chance had gone as she watched Taylor and Millar-Mills play so commandingly for the entire length of the 6N series. But her input in all three games was breathtaking. Consistently clean takes at the line-out, the occasional steal, and a presence in the open that rivalled Packer’s and Millar-Mills’. Her reward was a try in each game.
Thompson is a known threat on the wing. Blessed with deadly pace, she showed a confidence facing her opponent that bordered on the boastful. Like her wing-partner Wilson, she can shimmy off either foot. Her solo try against Canada has been described; her treatment of Woodman was thoroughly disrespectful. Her team-mates didn’t mind at all. The bookies’ offers post-tournament showed a decisive switch: England 5/6; New Zealand 6/4. What do they know that we don’t?
Part Three to follow
ROTORUA, NEW ZEALAND – JUNE 17: Izzy Noel- Smith (L) and Vicky Fleetwood of England celebrate after their victory during the International Test match between the New Zealand Black Ferns and the England Roses at Rotorua International Stadium on June 17, 2017 in Rotorua, New Zealand. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)