England emerge from tense finale to win unique Women’s Six Nations

The 2021 Women’s Six Nations has been unique even if the final outcome was not, with the professionals of England retaining the trophy after beating France’s semi-professionals 10-6 on finals day.

Less predictable was the manner of the Red Roses’ triumph. These sides had scored 228 points between them in their two pool games to reach the final. On Saturday, in perfect conditions at Twickenham Stoop, they managed one try. Poppy Cleall’s score on the stroke of half-time edged England to a win that was gripping, even if an error-strewn game lacked the fluency that armchair viewers might have expected.

England’s players won’t care too much that their third successive championship, broadcast live on BBC Two, wasn’t always easy on the eye. As their head coach, Simon Middleton, pointed out, rugby is often more about showing character and scrapping away than entertaining. England fought tirelessly and defended heroically against a French side who weren’t going to stand back and admire the Red Roses on what in England had been named Blossom Watch Day.

Zoe Aldcroft, moved from the second row to blindside flanker, epitomised England’s bloodymindedness. Aldcroft has battled back from injuries to finally blossom. She made countless tackles and carries as the French pack, whose two locks Madoussou Fall and Safi N’Diaye were a real handful, threatened to do some real damage in the first half.

England’s wings, Jess Breach and Abby Dow, hardly had a sniff of an opportunity on a day of unyielding defence but Middleton now has a real successor to Katy Daley-McLean, whose retirement at Christmas left a big hole. Helena Rowland and the inside-centre Zoe Harrison can both kick out of hand like Daley-McLean, and Rowland looks a really safe pair of hands at No 0.

England also scrapped away at the breakdown where the experienced Marlie Packer justified her selection after being left out against Italy. Perhaps it was the pressure of the occasion that turned this showpiece final into a toe-to-toe endeavour. There was an indication early on that England might labour to impose their authority when their captain, Emily Scarratt, missed two penalties as both sides struggled to get on the scoreboard.

When Scarratt left the field for a head injury assessment soon afterwards things got really worrying. “That second kick was really poor but we’re only human,” the England centre said. “I’m glad that wasn’t the difference between the sides in the end because I’m a perfectionist.”

Scarratt returned to the field and it was her successful last-minute penalty that allowed England to breathe easy in what had been an excruciatingly tight contest. So physical were the exchanges between the packs that Cleall, probably England’s best performer of the tournament, was forced from the field in the second half clutching her left elbow, an injury that will rule her out of the friendly rematch in Lille on Friday.

By then Sarah Hunter, left out of the starting lineup for her 125th cap, has come on to inject some energy into the English pack. “Sarah proved a serious point,” Scarratt said of her side’s usual captain. “She made a massive impact and her calm head really helped me.”

Warren Abrahams’s Wales side have had a difficult tournament but they at least scored their first points in a more promising display in Glasgow where Scotland, with Helen Nelson shining, avoided a wooden spoon with a 27-20 victory. It was only Scotland’s second championship win against Wales in the past 15 years.

Earlier on finals day, two tries from Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe helped Ireland to secure third spot with a 25-5 win against Italy in Dublin. It has been hard for the four teams struggling to keep pace with England and France, but all the players of this year’s tournament in its silent stadiums may just feel grateful it happened at all.