Will It Be Third Time Lucky For Harlequins Women ?

Sunday April 29 2018, with 81:16 on the clock Quins are on the attack, trailing 24-20, they have recovered from a poor first half with tries from Holly Myers, Jess Breach and a touchdown from Debs McCormack that has given them all the momentum.

As they mount a final attack, just one score and the Premiership title will be theirs, one bounce of the ball, one refereeing decision could change everything, but a knock on just outside Saracens twenty-two brings the game to an abrupt and gut wrenching end.

That blustery icy cold day at Ealing will never be forgotten by Quins and their fans, or indeed by this correspondent.

The team and management vowed, almost immediately, that they would return for the 2019 final, which they did, but an uncharacteristically flat performance resulted in defeat, which meant that for the second year in succession the title was won by Saracens.

No Premiership final took place in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, so here we are again in 2021 for yet another Harlequins v Saracens final.

There has been a huge change in the Quins personnel since that inaugural final, but there are a chosen few who will have seen active service in all three finals.

The 2019 Final At Franklins Gardens

Despite a much more competitive Premier 15s league this season, it is once again Harlequins and Saracens that battle it out for the trophy at Kinsholm on Sunday, will it be third time lucky for Quins ?, we shall find out very soon.

A316 The Fans Road To Freedom

For those of you unfamiliar with the Twickenham area, the A316, also known as the Great Chertsey road, is a dual carriageway that houses on one side, the home of English rugby, and four lanes away over on the other, The Stoop, home of Harlequins rugby club.

On Saturday four of the top teams in the men’s and women’s game, graced us with their presence, a wonderful day of rugby, with crowds, that warmed our hearts and gladdened the soul, after months of empty and lifeless stadiums, that creaked and groaned without the lifeblood of sport, the fans.

Temperatures more akin to November, than May were a minor inconvenience, and the squally showers did nothing dampen the excitement and enthusiasm shown on the field, and in the stands.

There was something for everyone, for the romantics there was the beauty and joy of Jess Breach and Cheslin Kolbe, for the more industrially inclined we had Will Skelton and Vickii Cornborough.

At the Stoop 2,000 fans turned up to watch Harlequins Women beat Wasps in the Allianz Premiership semi finals, whilst across the road 10,000 making the noise of 25,000, viewed a bruising Heineken Champions Cup Final between La Rochelle and Toulouse.

As ever to the winners the spoils. Toulouse and Harlequins emerged victorious, but in many ways the day belonged to the fans, and as the sun broke through the dark clouds towards the end of the Champions Cup Final, it seemed a perfect metaphor for the events of the last 15 months, I think the A316 will be a lot busier next season, fingers crossed.

Grand Slam Super Saturday For The Red Roses

It was one of those days when the sun shone from dawn till dusk, a Super Saturday adorned with cloudless blue skies, a day when it felt good to be alive, and for brief moments a global pandemic seemed a world away.

Entering a rugby stadium wearing a mask, having your temperature checked and having to scan your attendance on a medical phone app reminds you that the past is a different country, and we are in, as the buzz phrase says “The new normal”.

Rugby without fans is like bacon without eggs, Laurel without Hardy or thunder without lightning, what a day it would have been had we been able to share it with the life blood of rugby, the spectators.

The final day of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations brought together England’s Red Roses and France in a winner takes all showdown at Twickenham Stoop.

For Jess Breach, Abbie Ward, Leanne Riley, Lagi Tuima, Vickii Cornborough, Amy Cokayne and Shaunagh Brown, this was familiar turf ,their home ground, the field of dreams where they have worn the Harlequins shirt with such pride and glory.

With a Grand Slam and the Six Nations title at stake, it would not have been a surprise if the match had been cagey and tight, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

In the warm Spring sunshine, that was more Montpellier than Middlesex, the two best teams in Europe produced a match that displayed the very best

With the match televised live on BBC 2 it was the most wonderful opportunity to showcase the women’s game to an audience that might not be aware of its glorious attributes.

It may not have been a try fest, but there was a brutality and a bite to this contest, you could hear the echo of the hits way up in the stands.

France matched England physically and it took 39 minutes to register the first score of the game ascPoppy Cleal went over from close range with only 30 seconds of the first half remaining. Emily Scarrett converted to give England a 7-0 lead at the interval.

France wing Cyrielle Banet’s favourite film is “Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix”, but on this occasion the 26 year old French women could not provide provide her usual wizardry as defences continued to dominate.

France started the second half brightly, and reduced England’s lead to 7-3 on the 45th minute, with a penalty from Drouin, the hits if anything got bigger with both teams refusing to yield.

With 8 minutes left Drouin landed another penalty for France to bring them within one point of England, and it was here that the Red Roses showed their experience and tactical nous, playing the remainder of the match inside England “22”. The pressure they exerted earned them a simple penalty in front of the posts which Scarett converted to make the score 10-6 to England with only seconds remaining.

Many of the French women were in tears at the final whistle, it was a tough defeat to take and the battered bodies of both teams were testament to a glorious match that made any mention of gender totally irrelevant.

As England coach Simon Middleton mentioned in his post match interview “The physios are going to be very busy this week”.

England face France once again on Friday in Lille in a friendly, and after today’s bruising battle I use that term in its very loosest sense.

The Blues Sisters Women’s Six Nations 2021

Week three of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations proved to be a colourful affair with the emphasis on the colour blue. Italy, Scotland and France all normally wear differing shades of the primary colour.

The colour blue often symbolises serenity, stability, inspiration,wisdom or health. It can be a calming colour, and also symbolises reliability.

The was a large dose of blue reliability administered in Dublin, as France marched on to a final showdown with England at Twickenham Stoop next Saturday.

Under the bright blue cloudless skies of Glasgow, Scotland swapped their slightly darker shade of blue shirts for white ones, due to the colour clash with the Azure of Italy.

The blue symmetry did not just exist in shirt colour, both France and Italy touched down for 7 tries, and both teams conceded 2 tries to their opponents.

At Donnybrook, Five tries in the first 40 minutes saw France virtually secure a bonus point win by half-time,

Further scores from Caroline Boujard, Romane Menager and Cyrielle Banet took France beyond the half century of points.

Caroline Boujard took her try tally for the Championship to five from two games as France recorded a big win to set up a mouth-watering clash against England for the 2021 Women’s Six Nations title next Saturday at Twickenham Stoop.

Both teams had beaten Wales, meaning the match in Dublin was straight shootout to top Pool B and Les Bleues, impressed with a 56-15 win.

At Scotstoun Italy scored 2 tries in opening 9 minutes, Scotland suffered at line out and scrum which did not allow them to get any rhythm and cohesion into their play, Italy were well worth their convincing win.

Italy captain Manuela Furlan grabbed a hat-trick as the Azzurre saw off Scotland 41-20 at Scotstoun to secure second place in the Women’s Six Nations Pool A.

Italy will now play Ireland, in Parma on Super Saturday in the third-place play-off.

Italy made a dream start with two tries in the first nine minutes to race into a 12-0 lead thanks to scores from Beatrice Rigoni and Furlan. Their experienced backline was clicking and finding holes in the Scottish defence at every opportunity.

So both Scotland and Italy suffered a case of the Blues on a spring Saturday that gladdened the soul as winter finally shed its coat to give us a taste of spring.

The final weekend of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations looks like being the most competitive and most exciting of the whole tournament.

Lewis Jones 90 Not Out

Those of us fortunate enough to be have born in Carmarthenshire are aware of the mystical powers bestowed on a certain few of our rugby players.

Merlin the wizard of Arthurian legend was alleged to have been born in Carmarthen, and those of us in the know are acutely aware of how his sorcery has been handed down throughout the ages.

One recipient of these supernatural gifts was a certain Lewis Jones who celebrates his 90th birthday today.

Rugby league historian Robert Gate has described Lewis Jones as “arguably the most devastating attacking back Wales has ever produced.” His acceleration over the first few yards allowed him to penetrate almost any defence”.

On the face of it Lewis Jones’ career stats do not reflect a great talent – ten caps for Wales, three Lions appearances – but that hides the fact that for a brief period before he switched to rugby league he was the wonder boy of Welsh rugby.

His debut at Twickenham in 1950, aged 18 he was the youngest ever Welsh ended with him being carried shoulder-high from the pitch. To his bemusement he had been selected at fullback even though he had never played there. Wales won a Grand Slam weeks that season.

Later that year he became the first ever British Lion to arrive on tour by aeroplane when flown out as a replacement. His performances in Australia and New Zealand won him a string of plaudits. His versatility was shown by the fact his ten Wales caps came in three positions, fullback, centre and wing.

In November 1952 he switched codes for a then-record fee of £6000, revealing Leeds had been pursuing him for two years. The money plus the promise of a job proved too tempting. At 21 his rugby union career was over.

In Rugby League he unsurprisingly shone as well, winning 15 Great Britain caps and one for Wales (it was Wales last international match until 1968). He became the first player to kick 1000 goals for Leeds, spent six years as a player-coach in Australia and after retirement became a schoolmaster in Leeds.

During his eleven years at Headingley, Jones accumulated 3,445 points, third on the League’s all-time list.

In 1956-57, Jones broke the world record for the most points in a League season: 496 with 36 tries and 194 goals from 48 matches. He broke fellow Welshman Jim Sullivan’s season points record playing for Great Britain against France on his 25th birthday.

In 2013 Lewis was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

I’m sure tonight, somewhere, Merlin will be raising a glass with admiration to a true magician, Penblydd Hapus Lewis.

Trying Time For Wales In Brittany

Vannes is one of those places that contours up the idyllic French holiday, sitting outside a cafe with a crepe and a cold glass of muscadet whilst watching the world go by.

But on Saturday night there was rugby on the menu at Stade de la Rabine on Place Théodore Decker.

Standing on the right bank of the town’s marina, the stadium takes its name from the Promenade de la Rabine, which true to the meaning of the Breton word ‘rabine’ is a tree-lined path between the esplanade and the port.

The ground holds 5,440 spectators and is jointly used by top of the table Pro D2 rugby side Club Vannetais and Vannes OC, who now operate in the fifth tier, after spending the 2008/09 and 2010/11 seasons in Ligue 2.

Wales arrived in the land of their Celtic cousins full of optimism for this opening game of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations.

That optimism was shattered, as gaps as wide as the Gulf of Morbihan appeared in the Welsh defence, to allow Caroline Boujard a hat trick of tries in the opening 15 minutes.

It took 2 mins 22 seconds for the Montpellier wing to open her account, her favourite film is “The Hunger Games” and her hunger for the try line bordered on gluttony in a first half where France ran in 4 converted tries, to lead 31-0 at the break.

In the second half Wales defended heroically, holding up Sansus, Boujard and Tremouliere over the line saving three certain tries.

France did however score 4 tries in the second period, and the gulf between semi professional and amateur rugby, which is a huge factor in the Women’s Six Nations, was there for all to see.

For a new look Welsh side this was a harsh lesson, but they will face an Ireland side that hasn’t played for quite some time next weekend, all the better for their run out in the cool Breton night air.

For France once again it looks like a match against England on April 24 will decide the title, but there are a few hurdles to overcome before we come to Le Crunch.

Red Roses Race Away At Doncaster

The Red Roses started their 2021 Women’s Six Nations campaign with a bonus-point 52-10 win over Scotland in Doncaster.

Simon Middleton’s charges ran in eight tries at Castle Park, home of Championship side Doncaster Knights, to get their Women’s Six Nations title defence off to the perfect start.

It was blistering from the outset as the Red Roses put Scotland under immediate pressure, forcing them into early defence. The visitors were able to absorb the attempts at their try line however.  

Neat offloading from Bryony to Poppy Cleall was the catalyst behind England’s opening try on the 10-minute mark. Their fantastic interlinking saw Zoe Aldcroft brought down just shy of the whitewash, but Marlie Packer was on hand to break through the middle of the resulting ruck and power over. Emily Scarratt added the extras.

Potent attack continued and seven minutes later scrum half Leanne Riley sniped at the base of a five-metre ruck to claim England’s second score, though Scarratt was unsuccessful with the conversion.

Fly half Helen Nelson put Scotland on the scoreboard courtesy of an easy three-pointer, but England’s response was emphatic. Hooker Lark Davies surged over from a trademark rolling maul, before Bryony Cleall – making a second appearance since her debut two years ago – marked her return to international duty with a score, and in doing so secured England’s bonus-point.

As half time approached, Jess Breach collected a Helena Rowland cross-field kick, and showed sublime pace to canter over. Scarratt converted all three tries, making it 33-3 at the break.

The Red Roses started the second half with the same intensity as they had ended the first, and it saw fly half Rowland dart over for her first Test try after three minutes. Breach was unleashed down the left flank, jinking around defenders, before turning to assist the onrushing Rowland. Scarratt’s extras brought up a personal milestone of 600 points.

A Poppy Cleall yellow card handed Scotland a one player advantage, and they were able to immediately capitalise through a Hannah Smith try, converted by Nelson. The Red Roses went down to 13 players on the 57-minute mark, Davies sin binned for a high tackle, and then Scotland replacement Molly Wright was shown a red card for making head contact with her shoulder.

Returning to the field, Poppy Cleall joined her sister on the scoreboard in the 70th minute, the benefactor off the back of a five metre rolling maul. It was Poppy Cleall’s fifteenth Test score. England were awarded a penalty try with two minutes remaining after Louise McMillan brought down a promising rolling maul, rounding out a comprehensive victory. The Red Roses have now won their last 23 meetings against Scotland.  

Reaction 

Head coach Simon Middleton said: “I was really pleased with the first half.

“Our intensity was what we wanted particularly defensively, and our ruck speed gave us the attacking tempo we talked about. I thought we were outstanding for the majority of the first half. We got ourselves into a position where we wanted to be in the game but then didn’t kick on. It got a bit fractious and became stop start in the end and I’m a little disappointed in the second half.

“Poppy Cleall was brilliant. Her all-round impact is sensational.

“I thought Zoe Aldcroft was exceptional, she’s such a consistent player. Bryony Cleall can bring something different and I’m really pleased for her. In the main everyone who came back went well. Cath O’Donnell gave us great go-forward which is what Cath does.

“We know we have plenty to work on. We’ll have a look at the penalty count, what they were for and there’ll definitely be some areas we need to smarten up in terms of our discipline. There are lots of lessons for us, one of them being how to refocus and regain momentum and control when the game starts to break up and drift. We have plenty to work on for sure.

“I was really pleased with our set piece, our lineout defence in particular was hugely effective and our lineout attack grew into the game. Our drive needs to become more ruthless close to the opposition line but that goes for all our attacking game.

“I thought our scrum went well given the amount of live and competitive scrummaging the forwards have been able to get through.

“Scotland were terrific in terms of tenancity and they asked a lot of us in defence and it wasn’t until the end of the first half where we got away from them.

“We’ll start our recovery tonight, and do more tomorrow. We’ll review the game and begin our preparations at Pennyhill Park next week before we head to Italy.”

RED ROSES:15. Sarah McKenna, 14. Lydia Thompson, 13. Emily Scarratt (c), 12. Lagi Tuima, 11. Jess Breach, 10. Helena Rowland, 9. Leanne Riley, 1. Vickii Cornborough, 2. Lark Davies, 3. Bryony Cleall, 4. Abbie Ward, 5. Cath O’Donnell, 6. Zoe Aldcroft, 7. Marlie Packer,

8. Poppy Cleall.

FINISHERS:16. Amy Cokayne, 17. Detysha Harper, 18. Shaunagh Brown, 19. Harriet Millar-Mills, 20. Vicky Fleetwood, 21. Claudia MacDonald, 22. Megan Jones, 23. Ellie Kildunne.

SCOTLAND:15. Chloe Rollie, 14. Rachel Shankland, 13. Hannah Smith (Watsonians), 12. Lisa Thomson, 11. Megan Gaffney, 10. Helen Nelson, 9. Mairi McDonald, 1. Leah Bartlett, 2. Lana Skeldon, 3. Christine Belisle, 4. Emma Wassell, 5. Louise McMillan, 6. Rachel Malcolm (C), 7. Rachel McLachlan, 8. Siobhan Cattigan.

REPLACEMENTS:16. Molly Wright, 17. Panashe Muzambe, 18. Lisa Cockburn, 19. Evie Gallagher, 20. Jodie Rettie, 21. Jenny Maxwell, 22. Sarah Law, 23.

The Last Supper In Saint-Denis

The 2021 Guinness Six Nations finally came to an end last night in Saint-Denis, a commune in the northern suburbs of Paris, located 9.4 km from the city centre.

The area known for its crime, has extremely high rates of robbery, drug offences and murder. The mugging that took place a week ago when France beat Wales inside the Stade de France is still being investigated.

Saint-Denis is twinned with Nazareth in Israel, and even their famous carpenter’s son would have been astounded at the events that have occurred here over the last seven days.

Maybe there was some divine intervention, not quite baguettes and fishes level, but Scotland performed miracles that the main man would have been proud of.

For us Welsh it was a strange experience, with five minutes to go we knew the title was ours, yet such was the bravery and determination of the Tartan terriers, we found ourselves shouting ourselves hoarse as Scotland pounded the French line with the clock in the red, that winning try was something very special to take homeward and think of again and again and again.

What a tournament it has been, from the opening day it has brought us controversy, excitement, upset and some wonderful rugby.

It has distracted us from the horrors of a global pandemic, and the last two Friday nights have pushed my blood pressure up to levels I never thought possible.

I hope and pray that we are all spared to do it again next year in packed stadiums, and for Scots fans travelling to Cardiff in 2022, you are guaranteed the warmest of warm welcomes and thank you again for making an old man very happy.

Do Us A Favour Scotland

France v Scotland might well have been considered something of a Six Nations afterthought had results gone in another direction last Saturday.

But on Friday night at some ungodly hour in Paris, the winners of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations will be decided at Stade de France.

Les Bleus will be playing in white, but they have no intention of surrendering their title hopes after a heart stopping win over Wales last weekend.

I’m still getting flashbacks, especially in the still of a dark night, when in the silence I can hear the collective cries of a Welsh nation, it will take some considerable time, and an awful lot of counselling, to put this behind us.

So the first step on the road to recovery could be provided by our friends in the North, after all we helped them win the 1999 Five Nations, by beating England at Wembley, so we’re calling in a favour.

The Maffia may make you an offer you can’t refuse, but the Taffia will make you an offer you can’t understand.

We are not even asking you to beat the French, just limit them to 3 tries, or don’t lose by more than 20 points, the choice is yours, it’s not too much to ask is it ?.

If Scotland win, draw or just stop France scoring four tries, then Wales are champions.

France are hot favourites, but as Robert Burns once wrote;

There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing”.

I’m not sure I can take another gut wrenching 80+ minutes of white knuckle rugby, but with the Welsh, this sort of stuff comes with the territory.

So please everybody channel your inner Mel Gibson, Lulu, and Sean Connery and if you can help us out, I guarantee when you come to Cardiff for the 2022 Six Nations you will receive a welcome like no other.

Alba an Àigh.

The Longest Day A Six Nations Slam Dunked Super Saturday

I love France and I love the French, but their propensity for 9pm kick off’s is beginning to take the edge off our relationship.

Yesterday seemed never ending, waiting for Godot seemed a successful encounter compared to the wait for Alun Wyn Jones and his boys.

I’m not sure who was under the most pressure on so called Super Saturday, the Wales back row, or my Nespresso machine, fortunately both delivered, although the coffee machine stats were through the roof.

Nutrition is another conundrum on days like this, pizza is first name on the team sheet, scheduled for around 7pm, but the biscuits, chocolate and pastries do not form a rigid pattern, you have to play what’s in front of you, as finishers go I’m one of the best in this area.

Just one other area of concern to negotiate, my large black Labrador, sadly I’m no Andrew Cotter, so canine discipline in my house is on a par with Maro Itoje’s in the match against Wales, early walkies and only a pocket full of charcoal bones provide me with a defence as feeble as the Italians.

Scotland v Italy passed relatively smoothly, a sleepy hound and just coffee and digestives to consume. No crumbs of comfort for the Italians, but plenty of crumbs from me due to poor dunking technique.

Next up Ireland v England in an eerily quiet Aviva Stadium and I’m ashamed to say I dozed off briefly, dreaming of sipping a cold pint of Guinness in Searsons on Baggot Street, regathered myself just before half time with a Labrador face an inch away from mine, charcoal bones were administered at the pace of Keith Earles.

Full time and an Ireland victory that would be celebrated as only the Irish can in normal times, and talking of cans, I reach for the fridge and a Guinness is imbibed with precision, Labrador still on the prowl desperately searching for any form of snack that may be lurking, wearing the kind of pitiful facial expression that only another Labrador owner can appreciate, or indeed an Italian defence coach.

Finally as the spinach and ricotta thin crust disappeared from view it was time for the big one France v Wales

The scoreboard started ticking over quicker than my heart rate, 4 tries in the opening 14 minutes, at least I know my blood pressure tablets really do work.

My Magnificent Wales, so glorious so relentless, so heartbreaking and in a so typically Welsh kind of way, would we want it any different?, on the longest day, and for one night only, yes we bloody well would.