England secured a third successive Women’s Six Nations title with a dogged defeat of France at Twickenham Stoop on Super Saturday.
Victory gave the Red Roses bragging rights over Les Bleues — for six days at least — and ensured they stayed ahead of New Zealand in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings.
But, what other lessons have we learned over the course of three pulsating weeks?
England evolving on the road to New Zealand
The England team that takes to the pitch at Rugby World Cup 2021 may well look a little different to the one that would have competed this year.
In the build-up to the Women’s Six Nations final against France, coach Simon Middleton praised his team’s “flexibility across the back five of our scrum” as he picked Poppy Cleall at number eight ahead of captain Sarah Hunter.
Cleall was one of the tournament’s standout performers, scoring a try on each of her two starts — including the match-winner in the final — while contributing a pair of assists and making more carries (41) than any other player.
It may be that Middleton moves Hunter into the second-row in order to fit his skipper into the team, but with Cath O’Donnell, Abbie Ward, Zoe Aldcroft, Harriett Millar-Mills and the injured Morwenna Talling also able to play there it is clearly an area of strength.
Competition for places is an integral ingredient for any successful team, and it is one in evidence for England behind the scrum as well.
Leanne Riley looked as assured in England’s number nine jersey as the injured Natasha Hunt has done in the commentary box over the last few weeks.
And, with Zoe Harrison, Megan Jones and Lagi Tuima each given a runout in midfield, between Helena Rowland and Emily Scarratt, Middleton has a wealth of exciting options at his disposal.
Les Bleues’ ‘buzzing B’s’ light up Women’s Six Nations
Anyone who is able to keep World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Decade Jessy Trémoulière on the bench must be a good player, and Emilie Boulard proved herself to be just that this month.
Boulard took her first Women’s Six Nations by storm, starting each of France’s three matches at full-back and scoring a try in both of her first two appearances, against Wales and Ireland.
But, it was the threat Boulard carried in tandem with her more experienced back-three colleagues, Cyrielle Banet and Caroline Boujard, that really made the watching world sit up.
Banet notched a brace of tries in France’s 56-15 defeat of Ireland and finished the tournament having made 218 metres with ball in hand, despite playing only two of her side’s three matches.
Meanwhile, Boujard scored a hat-trick in the opening weekend win over Wales and followed that up with two tries against Ireland in Dublin, to finish as the tournament’s top try-scorer and earn a nomination for Women’s Six Nations Player of the Championship.
There may be a degree of disappointment that the exciting trio, who were restricted to a combined 169 metres by England’s defence, were unable to make more of a telling contribution at Twickenham Stoop.
But, the good news is the ‘buzzing B’s’ should get another shot against England in Lille on Friday night.
Ireland lay down marker on road to RWC 2021
With Europe’s final direct qualifier to New Zealand 2021 still to be confirmed, there was a chance for the teams in contention to land some psychological blows this month.
Italy did exactly that on 17 April when Andrea Di Giandomenico’s side travelled to Glasgow and recorded a 41-20 victory over hosts Scotland.
Azzurre captain Manuela Furlan led the way with a hat-trick of tries, while Beatrice Rigoni chipped in with two and Ilaria Arrighetti and Vittoria Ostuni Minuzzi also crossed the whitewash.
After their third-place play-off against Ireland was switched from Parma to Dublin it was perhaps a tall order to back up that win with a second big effort away from home in just seven days.
That proved to be the case as Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe’s try double, on her first test start, helped the hosts to a 25-5 victory at Energia Park.
How much of a boost that gives Adam Griggs’ side on the road to New Zealand, only time will tell.
Wilkins, Neumann and Lewis give Abrahams reason to hope
The challenges facing the women’s game in Wales were brought into sharp focus earlier this month as the team began its Women’s Six Nations 2021 campaign by conceding 98 unanswered points against France and Ireland.
New coach Warren Abrahams is not going to be able to fix everything on his own, but there were signs at Scotstoun on Super Saturday that his methods are having an impact.
Wales led Scotland 6-5 after 26 minutes, and although the hosts struck twice before the break, the visitors refused to buckle and outscored their opponents in the second half.
Lisa Neumann produced an excellent finish minutes after the restart, before Caitlin Lewis added a second try at the death, which was expertly converted by Robyn Wilkins — who connected with four of her five shots at goal.
It was all too late to prevent a 27-20 defeat, but it gave the Welsh players and coaching staff something to build on, and a reason to cheer at the end of a difficult campaign.
“It was a tough start [to the Women’s Six Nations] but I think the most important thing for myself and the coaching team is we’ve learned some incredible lessons,” Abrahams said.
“They have a lot of belief and played with passion and pride. Regardless of the scoreboard, there’s some incredible stuff we can take away from here.”
Standalone tournament proves a success
One consequence of the pandemic-enforced postponement of the Women’s Six Nations 2021 from February and March to April has been an increase in visibility of the tournament.
With no men’s internationals on at the same time, there has been more column inches and broadcast space dedicated to the women.
In the UK on Saturday, the tournament final between England and France was broadcast on BBC Two, the first time a Women’s Six Nations match has been shown on the channel.
The result was a peak audience of 600,000, three times the figure that watched the Red Roses’ opening two matches — or last season’s men’s English Premiership semi-finals.
If the feats of Poppy Cleall, Caroline Boujard and Co convince even a small percentage of those who tuned in to head down to their local club then the hard work of all those involved will have been worth it.