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Let’s have relegation in women’s Six Nations

By Catherine Spencer,

Round one of the women’s Six Nations followed expected form as England and France swept aside Ireland and Wales respectively with embarrassing ease.

Scotland’s fixture against Italy was by far the most competitive of the weekend but while Scotland gained good territory and possession, their lack of invention to get across the try line was their downfall. Italy impressed with an assured, steady victory.

Today’s fixture, England v France, the last of the second round, is, without doubt, the match of the tournament. Even at this early stage I am comfortably stating that the winner of this game will lift the Championship trophy in five weeks’ time. Enjoy the excitement, the tension, the unpredictability whilst it lasts.

This leads us to a wider issue surrounding the women’s tournament and the extreme gulf in standard between the top and bottom of the table.

Ironically, against a backdrop of controversial discussions surrounding the ring-fencing of the men’s Premiership (which I am 100 per cent against) I think it is the right time for promotion and relegation to be introduced to the women’s Six Nations.

I would also go so far as suggesting that the format needs to be changed. Now that women’s sport and women’s rugby have a stronger profile, do we need to continue to mirror the men? I love the Six Nations, it is a fantastic tournament full of history and juicy rivalries but the development of the women’s game is becoming shackled; thwarted by the apparent continuing need to do the same as the men.

Change to a top four tournament with home and away fixtures each year running concurrently to a development league of four with promotion and relegation in between. This allows two more European teams to be exposed to regular meaningful competition while also ensuring that the top teams are playing each other.

By current standings Spain would come in to the top tier to compete against France, England and Italy. This would provide a tournament that realistically lasts beyond one 80 minute fixture in round two. And it could provide a fantastic opportunity for a unique sponsor to come on board and reap the rewards of the wider women’s sporting landscape. It would also perhaps ensure that the best players of each nation are involved. Something that is not happening this year.
While we have moved away from the 7s vs 15s debate in England with the introduction of equitable contracts, it still rumbles on in France.

The World Player of the Year, Jessy Tremouliere, France’s stand out full-back is not featuring in this tournament because she is currently part of the development 7s squad. Other stars of the French game – Izar, Mayans and Drouin are also away with 7s.

The swinging pendulum, now stationery in England, is still very much in motion across the Channel; magnetised and drawn towards the apparent ‘va va voom’ of the Olympics. The gamble could pay off for them but, win or lose today, supporters and fans of the 15s rugby are denied the chance to watch the world’s best player.

But France are not lost without these players. They have decent strength in depth and looking ahead to the next World Cup opportunities for other players to gain international experience is not necessarily a bad thing. They also have the phenomenal power of their pack and an exceptional playmaker at 9 reaping the rewards from this exceptional platform in the name of Pauline Bourdon. Remember her.

I could mention every forward in the French pack along with a glowing report but my two players to watch for this weekend are that of Safi

N’Diaye and Lenaig Corson, the engine room at the heart of everything good about the French forwards. A formidable pairing in the second row that every team will be wary of. Of the nine tries scored by France last weekend against Wales, six came from the forwards – three of which were from driving mauls. England be aware.

England can, it has to be said match them with talent in their forward pack too, the front row pairing of Sarah Bern and Hannah Botterman ran riot in open play last week. Bern displaying her back-row roots with a fantastic turn of pace and burst down the centre of the pitch from a turnover in the lineout. If there was one small sign of weakness it was England’s scrum but today, we see the return of Vickii Cornborough at tight head. This will surely strengthen the set piece for England; Botterman will have to bide her time on the bench. Abbie Scott comes back into the second row, a welcome return as a player and leader. So, England without doubt, go in to this game with a stronger starting eight but it is the collective of the French pack that is dangerous. With N’Diaye and Corson at the heart it is the ‘dog’; so hard to coach but gold dust to any team that has it. The French forwards have it in spades.

Away from the forwards and key to England’s performance is Katy Daley-McLean. She is like a fine wine, just simply getting better with age. Her performances that have been inconsistent in years gone by are now habitually excellent and her ability to draw players onto her flat pass is world class. Wave after wave of attack that, if allowed to build at some point, can’t fail to expose a gap. So, where France have the ‘dog’, England have dynamism and an ability to attack from anywhere on the park.

France will aim to slow their pace, to disrupt their quick ball and entice their forwards in to a closer, more brutal battle. They won’t want to see 50 metre breaks from any English front row forward today. They will want to sap their energy in a contest of attrition and I cannot wait to see it.

We may not see the number of tries that both teams racked up last week but we are in for a treat. The game of rugby takes many forms of beauty.

Enjoy the skill of the close quarter battles, become immersed in its glory and enjoy what will be, quite possibly, one of the games of the season. Men’s or Women’s.

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