So this week we’ll be concerning ourselves with what the final Round of the Women’s Six Nations told us about the Women’s game in the Northern Hemisphere. England and France remain in a league of their own, but despite the challenges facing rugby in Wales the Women’s game in the Principality looks in remarkably good health. Scotland also provided a few surprises after they emerged from a fairly negative review of the State of the Nation North of Hadrian’s Wall. Italy showed plenty of promise but it somehow fell short of producing big results. However, Ireland presented a sorry picture of the Women’s game in the Emerald Isle and it is all the more shameful given the fact that the Men’s team is rated as the best in the World.
We also take a look at a clash of Irish management styles in the Heineken Champions Cup final to take place at the end of the month between Leinster and La Rochelle. Last but not least we ask the perplexing question as to who will wear the number nine jersey for the All Blacks come the World Cup, and what is likely to be the pecking order of the three main contenders.
So without any further ado here’s what kept our pints frothy this week.
England and France give us an epic final and with it the biggest crowd ever for a Women’s International
Let’s be honest the drama that played out at Twickenham last weekend was a big deal – a very big deal! The 58,498 fans who packed the stands, the largest ever recorded for a Women’s game, ensured that the momentum built at last year’s World Cup in New Zealand was strengthened. Women’s Rugby is now a major global sport and can make the numbers that attracts the advertisers and the big broadcasting deals. It’s heady stuff, but over and above that we were treated to some genuine top class rugby last weekend at Twickenham, Parma and Edinburgh.
However, all credit must go to England’s remarkable group of Grand Slam Champions. They held their nerve as, in the second half, a seemingly down and out France came roaring back to life and were within minutes of causing the biggest upset we could have seen between now and the World Cup. It was a remarkable game that highlighted England’s truly phenomenal physical presence in the Women’s game. However, it wasn’t just all brute force from the Red Roses and the Marlie Packer steam train, there were some lovely running plays that highlighted the extraordinary skill sets of players such as winger Abby Dow. England have a complete game that will be one of the benchmarks for other teams to measure themselves against till the next global showdown in 2025, especially as England will be the hosts.
Nevertheless, France also deserve huge praise for their remarkable comeback from a 33-0 deficit at half time to finish the game on the wrong end of the scoreboard by only five points at 38-33. As France showed against New Zealand in the World Cup in their one point semi-final loss, this is a team still with a few kinks to work out but clearly a superpower in the making. The warning shots have clearly been fired across England and New Zealand’s bows ahead of the World Cup in 2025. Next year’s Six Nations clash between these two in France should be the stuff of legends and one of the biggest tickets of 2024.
The rugby played by both teams is of an exceptional standard technically and demonstrates just how far the skill levels in the Women’s game have grown in the last four years. While everyone else in the World bar New Zealand will know they have their work cut out to catch up to these two giants of the Women’s game, as standard bearers we couldn’t have asked for better and we look forward to a long and intense rivalry between the two.
Best of the Rest!
Welsh rugby as a whole may be struggling with what it’s future looks like, but Welsh women rugby players seem to be taking it all in their stride. There is no question that outside of France and England they were the best team in the competition, dispatching with relative ease Ireland, Scotland and Italy. We had felt that the game in Parma between Italy and Wales last weekend would tell us much about the emerging hierarchy in the Women’s Game in the Northern Hemisphere and we weren’t proved wrong. If Wales can build on their strong third place finish this year, who’s to say that they won’t be challenging either France or England for second place next year. Much like England they possess an intimidating physical game but in open play they can be equally dangerous. There are still plenty of workons for Wales if they are to make that critical next step, but after this tournament they have clearly laid out a statement of intent and have the nucleus of a squad of developing talent to get them there.
We had thought that Italy were going to pip Wales to that much sought after third place finish, but despite a strong start against France, Italy faltered too often this tournament to go the distance. Don’t get us wrong Italy have some supremely talented players, but much like their Men’s side they have yet to find that fine balance between ambition and skill. However, Italy will be back next year and if they can correct their mistakes against Scotland and Wales, most notably their set piece work, kicking and discipline then the future looks bright for the Azurre, as in open play Italy looked decidedly dangerous. Also Italy and England won more turnovers than any other team. In short – watch this space!
Scotland also were a pleasant surprise this Six Nations, despite emerging with little to show from an exceptionally brave World Cup campaign last year. They will be disappointed by the schoolings they received from France and England, but against Ireland and Italy they showed that there is plenty of grit and determination in this Scottish side. The Scotland that started the campaign in the first three Rounds was a very different side to that which wrapped up proceedings against Ireland last weekend at Edinburgh. Their strong showings against Italy and Ireland at home simply need to be translated into form on the road and when up against sterner opposition. But after the uncomfortable spotlight the game was put under during last year’s review, the initial results of rebuilding the Women’s game in Scotland are starting to look very positive indeed.
Ireland’s uncomfortable truth
Despite the triumphant scenes at Twickenham this Women’s Six Nations, it wasn’t all smiles and success. Ireland’s experience painted a very negative picture of the Women’s Game in the Emerald Isle, and so far there only seems to be lip service being paid to the deep rooted problems lying at the heart of Ireland’s failures this Six Nations. It’s important to remember that up to 2017 Ireland was a dominant force in the Women’s tournament. However, since then the gap between the funding of the Men’s game and that of the Women’s has become laughable to the point that the Women’s game has become very much an afterthought in Ireland. The IRFU has made a ham fisted attempt at turning the Women’s game professional, which must surely feel like a slap in the face given the success of the world class structure Ireland has in place for the Men’s Game.
Limited media coverage and at times Neanderthal type social attitudes towards the women’s game amongst men seen in certain social media posts have not helped their cause, made worse by allegations of the IRFU essentially being an “old boys club”. Things are changing slowly as a result of a rather scathing and in depth review recently conducted into how the Women’s game is managed and represented in Ireland. It will be a long slow process, and to some degree takes some of the polish off the remarkable successes in recent years of the Men’s Programme. It is clear that the Irish Women’s team don’t resent the success of their male counterparts and will be the first to celebrate their triumphs should they finally make this a World Cup for Irish supporters to remember. However, the IRFU must make every effort between now and the World Cup to bridge the glaring gaps and make whatever success may come Ireland’s way this autumn accessible to all.
The present state of the Women’s game in Ireland is simply unacceptable and even a tad shameful. It has now been recognised as such by all the parties involved and steps are in hand to address the mess. Ahead of a year that could well be one to remember for Irish rugby for many years to come, it is time for the IRFU to finally put their money where their mouth is.
This year’s Heineken Cup Final is a clash of contrasting Irish styles under two different flags
Sticking with the Irish theme, we now have a Heineken Cup final to be played in Ireland and featuring the best of French and Irish club rugby. However, all of it is seasoned with Irish cooking skills. Leinster Coach Leo Cullen and his La Rochelle counterpart Ronan O’Gara are bringing a distinctly Gaelic approach to proceedings. O’Gara’s time at Munster and in an Irish jersey are the stuff of legends while Cullen can boast a similar record in the blue of Leinster and the green of Ireland. These two gentlemen know each other intimately on and off the pitch having played as both teammates and opponents. Now their club rivalry on the pitch has shifted to the Coaching Box.
Cullen wants his charges to play at lightning speed in both attack and defense whereas O’Gara prefers a more traditional approach based on the principle of grinding down the opposition through your physical presence and ability in the set pieces. It’s almost a touch ironic that, in Cullen, Leinster have a former forward who is advocating a faster and more open game, while in O’Gara, La Rochelle have a former half back settling on a more traditional and physical approach to taking momentum away from your opponents.
It will all make for a fascinating contrast of styles on May 29th at the Aviva. Many are tipping Leinster on their home ground to make up for the disappointment of losing out on the silverware to La Rochelle last year. However, both Coaches have shown themselves adept at adjusting their game plans to suit how a game unfolds on the day. Nothing is a given on May 29th as two of the best brains in European club rugby sit down and try and work out how best to unlock the Champions Cup trophy cabinet.
Mirror mirror on the wall who is the cleverest of them all?
Most International Coaches can only wish to be in the position that All Blacks Coach Ian Foster and his team find themselves in. Ahead of the World Cup who gets the starting nine jersey for most of your big games? New Zealand are quite literally spoilt for choice so where do they begin? It’s probably going to be THE most hotly contested seat on the plane to France.
Let’s start with Chiefs number 9 Brad Weber who has been sensational in the Waikato outfit’s remarkable Super Rugby campaign this year which sees them undefeated after 9 rounds. Long circling the periphery of the All Blacks selection policies, Weber has never been given a consistent start – essentially being brought in when regulars like Aaron Smith or TJ Perenara have been unavailable, but more recently having to operate in the shadow of up and coming Blues sensation Finlay Christie. In the past he’s been known for his reliability and eye for an opportunity, but this year he’s added some genuine speed of delivery and flair to his resume. In short, if it was our call we’d give him the nod for the number one spot on the list.
Then there’s the Blues’ X-factor in the shape of Finlay Christie. In the last two years Christie has increasingly been given the nod for some of the lower stakes games, while being seen as an impact player for the big events once traditional stalwart Aaron Smith has got the job done. However, we’d argue he’s still a bit green around the edges at Test Level and can panic when things aren’t quite going to plan. As a result we can’t help feeling that he’s not quite the bankable commodity the All Blacks need for the big event in France just yet.
Last but certainly not least there is the conundrum of Aaron Smith. While at a club level the Highlanders and Smith are really nothing to write home about, put the man in a Black jersey and he seems completely and utterly transformed. Smith’s big game temperament and ability to cope under pressure is the stuff of legends and has been the gold standard for the All Blacks since 2012. You simply can’t judge him by his performances in a Highlanders jersey. However, the argument that it’s time for a change despite his experience, especially given New Zealand’s dip in form over the last two years is mounting, but can they really do without that experience on the biggest stage of them all?
To make matters even more confusing we haven’t even mentioned outstanding newcomer Cameron Roigard from the Hurricanes and the experience and ability of veteran Crusaders scrum half Mitchell Drummond. However, we can’t help feeling that despite their worth these two are very much on the periphery for the trip to France, and will only likely get the call should an injury to any of the above mentioned three front runners become a concern.
In short, if it was our call we’d go out on a limb and pick Weber as our first choice All Black scrum half for the World Cup. Alternate him and Smith for the big games with Christie on the bench and a starting role for the Blues man for the easier Pool Games like Namibia and Uruguay. We’re fascinated to see how it all plays out when Coach Ian Foster names his starting XV for the big day on September 8th against France.
So that’s it for this week folks. Hopefully on their return to Toronto the Arrows’ dismal season will take a turn for the better along with the weather which has left much to be desired so far this spring. Take care, stay safe and here’s our shout out once again to all the fabulous women who gave us such a memorable Women’s Six Nations this year culminating in that epic attendance at Twickenham!