How can teams challenge Grand Slam winners England?

Home » How can teams challenge Grand Slam winners England?

England cruised to victory over France in Bordeaux to secure their third consecutive Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam and sixth title in a row.

John Mitchell’s side scored 270 points and conceded just 41 in one of the most dominant Six Nations campaigns in recent years.

The result means the Red Roses extended their record winning streak in the championship to 29 games.

With England seemingly getting better as they build towards a home World Cup next year, is the lack of competitive matches a problem for the championship?

And how do the other nations go about closing the gap?

Sport has looked at the progress of the rival teams eager to test England’s resolve in future seasons.

Ireland

Ireland enjoyed a vastly improved campaign and appear to be on an upward trajectory under new coach Scott Bemand after wins over Wales and Scotland.

The 2013 and 2015 champions rounded off a memorable campaign with a gritty win over Scotland in Belfast. This saw them leap from fifth to third in the final table and secure WXV1 and World Cup qualification.

In August 2022, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) said it would offer 43 professional women’s contracts to 15s and sevens players that would “range up to 30,000 euro plus match fees and bonuses”.

But eight Ireland players turned down contracts because of the stipulation that they must play their rugby in Ireland and only 10 15-a-side players signed deals.

This means a vast majority of Ireland’s squad are playing at a lower standard in the new Celtic Challenge and for their provinces in interpros, compared to those who turned down contracts to play in the Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR).

Ireland’s development should also be aided by the appointment of David Humphreys as the IRFU’s new performance director to replace David Nucifora at the end of the season.

WXV1 promotion will bring new challenges and a higher calibre of opposition, but it should help continue the team’s development and grow the game.

The 88-10 thrashing at Twickenham shows that Ireland still have a long way to go, but with young players such as Aoife Wafer and Katie Corrigan, who have showed real promise this campaign, there is hope that Ireland can rise to the challenge.

Scotland

Even allowing for the disappointment of a final-day defeat by Ireland that cost them a third-place finish, Scotland are moving in the right direction.

A first victory on Welsh soil in 20 years, a first victory in Italy in 25 years, and pushing the world number three French side to the wire in defeat all point to progress after last year’s victorious WXV2 campaign in South Africa.

The 46-0 trouncing at the hands of England was a big dose of reality, however, in terms of where Scotland are when measured against the world’s best.

Scotland’s female internationals were first awarded professional contracts by the union less than 18 months ago, so to expect them to close such a gulf to one of the game’s powerhouses in that timeframe is unrealistic.

The funding for women’s rugby will continue, but with Scottish Rugby posting a £10.5m loss in their last accounts – the next set of accounts could well paint an even bleaker picture – it remains to be seen whether the women’s game will benefit from any notable increase to their budget for the foreseeable future.

The introduction of Glasgow and Edinburgh women’s teams to compete in the Celtic Challenge has been a welcome move forward, opening up a level of competition for promising young talent that previously did not exist.

Punching above their weight is the goal, but the road towards challenging the truly elite of the women’s game will be a long one.

Wales

Despite enduring a WXV1 whitewash in the autumn, Wales were confident of closing the gap on England and France in this campaign.

They now had 32 professionally contracted players and a large contingent of Gloucester-Hartpury players making up their squad.

Things would surely click. But the results that followed – four defeats before a dramatic win over Italy – proved a sobering reminder of the gap that still exists between Wales and the world’s top teams.

Head coach Ioan Cunningham said the problem ran much deeper than on the pitch and a long-term solution would be having a competitive domestic league in Wales, rather than relying on the PWR competition in England to develop Welsh talent.

One solution that has been suggested is Wales entering its own team in the PWR, something that is supported by the skipper Hannah Jones.

The Celtic Challenge has brought through new talent, the likes of Gwennan Hopkins and Catherine Richards.

Wales can be encouraged by the reinstatement of international pathways, and the under-18 and under-20 sides are doing great things, with former Wales captain Siwan Lillicrap involved in the coaching.

There is also a £3m funding pot from the British and Irish Lions which will help bring in more coaches and resources.

France and Italy

Back in 2018, France were the last team other than England to win the Six Nations and Saturday’s 21-point defeat by their rivals showed the gap at the top is widening.

Prior to the game in Bordeaux, France had lost by only a score in three of their past four championship meetings with the Red Roses.

A one-off game may not offer too much concern, but 13 defeats in their last 13 games against England paints a similar trend.

Unlike the other nations, France remain dominant at age-group level and defeated England Under-20s 74-0 just this month.

The French domestic league will also change next season from a two-pool format and 12 teams to 10 sides with one pool, which should help to boost competitiveness.

Bringing talent through will remain their top priority over the coming years, with a win over England needed to avoid a growing mental block against their rivals.

Before the 2023 Six Nations, Italy announced 22 professional contracts had been given out to their players.

Since then only two wins over Ireland have followed; however, there was positive progress in this campaign in a resilient first half against England – where they only conceded 10 points – and their victory away against Ireland.

The majority of the team play club rugby at home, with four players playing in the PWR.

Centre Beatrice Rigoni and forward Sara Tounesi are at Sale Sharks, versatile forward Silvia Turani plays for Harlequins and prop Sara Seye turns out for Ealing Trailfinders.

This has helped to raise the professional standards of their national team, and more of the same will help to bring further improvements.

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