Women's Six Nations: What to look out for in the final round

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At last, the concluding weekend of the Women’s Six Nations is upon us! An action-packed final day of rugby awaits with the grand finale, the wooden spoon decider and a match in the middle that will show us which team is in the chasing pack looking to catch up with England and France in the future.

The day starts with the latter, as Italy travel to Donnybrook to take on Ireland (12pm KO) to determine who takes the third-placed position. The big one, however, is the England v France final. The 2021 Women’s Six Nations title decider kicks off at 2pm. And will it be Scotland or Wales who picks up the undesirable wooden spoon (5pm KO)? Here are the talking points ahead of the final weekend:

New format success?

This year’s Women’s Six Nations has been like no other. The condensed format, which was introduced because of COVID-19 concerns, divided teams into two groups of three, and a finals day this weekend will decide the overall standings.

So has the new look championship been a success? Well, the fact that the tournament stood alone from the men’s Six Nations has been welcomed, and there are calls for this to continue in the future.

The super Saturday ‘grand final’ concept has also been praised by competitors, particularly from English and French players who will play in a high-stakes title decider final. This is a rarity in international rugby where only the World Cup offers the chance of a final. Often the Women’s Six Nations table has been decided before the final weekend.

But, and this is a big but, the amount of games played is the real problem. Each team has played only three matches, compared to the usual five. England’s Shaughna Brown told Sky Sports: “As an international team, we don’t get to play very often so when we have the opportunity, we need to play as much rugby as possible.”

The Final

England vs France is usually the pinnacle match of the Women’s Six Nations as two of the best women’s teams in world rugby come head-to-head. However, in a year like no other, this game really is set to be an exceptional spectacle within the women’s game as they meet in an all-or-nothing final.

In the past five years, the French were champions in 2016 and 2018, while the Red Roses have won the championship thrice in the years between. They are on course for three consecutive titles if they win on Saturday.

The match-up usually decides who wins the tournament, and in recent years it has been incredibly close. Six of the last eight meetings have been within a ten-point difference and when they last faced each other in November 2020, all that separated the two teams was an Emily Scarratt penalty in overtime.

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Scarratt is the England captain once again as Sarah Hunter is pushed to the bench by Poppy Cleall, the player of the match against the Scots. Throughout the championship, Cleall has been touted as one of the best players in the world. Simon Middleton also seems to have worked out his preferred fly-half after the retirement of Katy Daley-Mclean, with Helena Rowland making her third consecutive start.

The Red Roses’ defence has yet to be properly tested in this year’s competition, but the French will certainly hope to change this. They have the firepower of winger Caroline Boujard, who is the Women’s Six Nations current top try scorer with five, which included a 15 minute hattrick against Wales.

Points for Wales?

Wales have yet to put a single point on the scoreboard in this year’s championship. They have lost 53-0 and 45-0 to their respective Pool B opponents France and Ireland. They have struggled to have control in their matches and opponents have ripped through Warren Abrahams’ side’s defence almost effortlessly.

So what is going wrong for Wales? As the Welsh men lifted this year’s Six Nations trophy, it is clear that there is an imbalance between the two Welsh sides as the female players are left to struggle in a fifth/sixth place playoff.

The Welsh Rugby Union have come under intense criticism for their lack of investment in women’s rugby, an issue emphasised as 22 of their 23-strong matchday squad against France play their club rugby across the border in England. That condemnation against the WRU is set to level up if Wales women are at the hands of another heavy defeat on Saturday.

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Coverage and publicity

The standalone nature of this year’s Women’s Six Nations, along with BBC’s pledge to show all matches on their iPlayer streaming service, has ensured there has been more coverage for this Championship than ever before.

Irish broadcaster, RTÉ, have also shown all their games on their own streaming platform and put each of Ireland’s matches on live mainstream television.

The BBC will show the England vs France final on BBC2 on Saturday and Red Rose Poppy Cleall has praised the extra publicity this year’s Women’s Six Nations is receiving: “The coverage this year is triple of what I’ve seen before. When I’m going through social media, I’m seeing so much coverage of players and their stories,” she told the Guardian.

Whilst the additional coverage has been great for fans wishing to watch every match in one place, the coverage of women’s rugby still has a long way to go before it acquires the same status as the men’s competition. There has been criticism of this, voiced when the BBC chose to broadcast a rerun of the antiques show Flog It! rather than Italy vs England.

Where to watch
England vs France will be on BBC2 and the other two matches will be on iPlayer for UK audiences. For Irish viewers, RTÉ 2 has Ireland vs Italy and RTÉ Player will show the remaining fixtures.

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