Opportunities knock for England props as Sarah Hunter bows out
By Daniel Schofield
One chapter in English rugby history closed on Saturday night as Sarah Hunter bade an emotional farewell in her record 141st and final cap but another may well have opened at Kingston Park.
There were some new faces in the form of loosehead prop Mackenzie Carson, who made her second international debut having previously represented Canada. The prop pairing of Liz Crake and Kelsey Clifford, who helped maintain England’s scrum dominance, as well as scrum-half Ella Wyrwas also made their debuts off the bench in the second half.
Just as noticeable was the attacking mindset that England displayed in their customary mauling of Scotland. It was not a wholesale reinventing of the wheel that England rode to last year’s World Cup final with the maul still providing four of their 10 tries, including a hat-trick by flanker Marlie Packer.
Yet England were far from wedded to the set-piece with most of their attacking play based off Holly Aitchison, making her first start at fly half, playing close to the line. For prop Sarah Bern, the combination of fresh blood and thinking has helped England to turn the page on the heartache of losing the World Cup final to New Zealand last year.
“With all these new players coming in has really rejuvenated us as a squad,” Bern said. “Our thought process was how are we going to have more variety in our game and the way we play. It has been a really positive few weeks with the squad and it has definitely lifted our spirits.
“There’s more excitement and we had this attitude of let’s go and attack it, which we definitely did today. The set-piece is something we still want to grow and get us those control points in the game but just our open play hopefully will look exciting. We got some lovely tries today.
“We don’t want to be afraid to get our back three on the ball a bit more instead of going for that kick territory game. Let’s go and see what we can do. We have got a team of the most amazing ball carriers and handlers. Why not unleash them all?”
That was evident in the post-match stat sheet which showed all of England’s starting pack made at least seven carries. Leading the way was Packer who made 115 metres off 20 carries while Bern rampaged for 79 metres off nine carries. Pulling the strings was Aitchison who was so adept at finding the right pass at the point of contact.
“I love how Holl plays,” Bern said. “It is very attacking, it is very to the line. She brings lots of deception with ball in hand, is it going to the forwards or the backs. That’s really exciting. I love defence and I love set piece but at the same time I love attack and seeing Holl zip those balls around and mix the backs and forwards is really exciting.”
England have not quite fully abandoned their set-piece heritage, certainly not while former Leicester second row Louis Deacon remains in charge of the forwards. Their scrum dominance was so frightening that it should have come with a parental advisory warning.
“He just gives us this savage mindset,” Bern said. “How can we dominate? What does it look like to be ruthless? That’s something that we try to grow as a pack. He is very good at letting players lead and have their voices heard rather than imposing the structure he wants. We play a lot of the Six Nations players in the Premiership so he will ask us what do you know about these players. How do you think we should attack them and impose our strengths? I think you saw that today.”
Hunter enjoys fairytale finish in emphatic England win
By Daniel Schofield at Kingston Park
This was a thoroughly gratifying evening’s work for England. Some of the demons of their World Cup final loss to New Zealand were laid to rest at a sold out Kingston Park who acclaimed their own Angel of the North in Sarah Hunter, winning her 141st and final cap.
Marlie Packer, Hunter’s long-term partner in the back row, led the way with a hat-trick of tries from rolling mauls in the second half while hooker Amy Cokayne and wing Claudia MacDonald both crossed twice.
It was not always the slickest performance with several new combinations leading to a few too many handling errors for coach Simon Middleton’s liking. However, he would have been delighted by the individual performances of several of the next generation to stake their claim to be building blocks for the next World Cup cycle after that heartbreaking 34-31 defeat to the Black Ferns brought an end to the Red Roses’ 30-game winning run.
Holly Aitchison has played most of her international rugby as a centre but injuries to Zoe Harrison and Helena Rowland opened the door for her to start at fly half where she looked to the manor born. She has a matador’s timing in the way she plays so flat to the line before unleashing forwards such as Packer to crash past the gainline and beyond.
The standout performers were a pair of seasoned internationals in tighthead Sarah Bern and lock Zoe Aldcroft who not ensured complete set piece dominance but made enough yards after contact to reach the Bigg Market and back. Injuries to centre Amber Reed and Poppy Cleall took some of the sheen off the result.
Scotland may have turned professional in December but the gap with the Auld Enemy remains as wide as it has ever done. Missing 250 caps worth of experience, Scotland kept England at bay for the first ten minutes but seemed to empty the tank in doing so. It is going to take a lot more time for Scotland, who have now lost their last ten matches, to see the physical benefits of full-time training, although they rallied at the end and got a try they so richly deserved with Chloe Rollie’s excellent try. Behind Hunter’s substitution, it brought the loudest cheer of the day.
16 years. 141 caps. The end of an incredible career. The end of an era 😢#ThankYouSarah pic.twitter.com/PVnsghU2sW
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 25, 2023
And so this whitewash joins the long list of monsterings that England have inflicted on Scotland. The sequence of results 58-7, 57-5 52-10, 53-0, 80-0, 43-8 and 60-0 looks more like a school’s cricket scorecard than a competitive rugby rivalry. When Packer scored three successive tries from mauls in the second half you felt like England had accessed some sort of cheat code. This is as much a problem for the TikTok Six Nations as a competition as it is for Scotland, who were at least game opposition in the first and final quarters.
Early on, England’s forwards were getting over the gainline but the Scottish defence was bending rather than breaking. A more ominous tone set at the set piece where the Scottish pack seemed to be on rollerskates at the scrum and then promptly had their first lineout pinched by Aldcroft.
Yet the Scottish parsimony in defence would only last so long. Packer broke the line and then the Scots were scrambling. With a massive overlap, England made a mess of going left, but they reloaded and Reed put MacDonald over with a cute inside ball. Scotland very nearly responded when Emma Orr stretched for the line but came millimetres short.
Instead England plundered their second try, the combination of Aitchison and Reed again combined with MacDonald who this time selflessly put Cokayne over in the corner.
After displaying her close-range finishing and passing skills, MacDonald then showcased her raw speed in stepping inside Rollie on the halfway line and scorching her way past the covering defence for her second score. Bern nearly emulated the wing’s try with a linebreak of her own. Cleall offloaded out of the tackle which was well taken by Packer and replacement Tayana Heard powered over from close range.
Cokayne’s second try from a maul ensured England boasted a 31-0 lead at halftime. Scotland’s task simply kept getting harder as Cleall ran a clever line from short range for England’s sixth try. Full back Abby Dow then broke yet more tackles and found flanker Sadia Kabeya on her shoulder.
England showed no shame in using the maul as their go-to weapon in the World Cup and what worked for them there worked in Newcastle too. In the space of little more than ten minutes, Packer was driven over three times in the same right hand corner. It was devastatingly effective.
Scotland, though beaten and bruised, were not bowed and rallied with arguably the pick of the tries. Beth Blacklock, on debut, cut through the England defence who conceded a penalty in their desperation. Scotland recycled possession patiently and then Rollie struck, stepping past one defender and then turning on the burners.
The night, however, belonged to Hunter.
Scoring sequence: 5-0, McDonald try; 7-0 Reed con; 12-0 Cokayne try; 17-0 MaDonald try; 22-0 Heard try; 24-0, Tuima con; 29-0, Cokayne try; 31-0, Tuima try; 36-0, Cleall try; 41-0 Kabeya try; 43-0, Tuima con; 48-0 Packer try; 53-0 Packer try; 58-0 Packer try; 58-5, Rollie try; 58-7, Nelson con.
England: A Dow (E Sing, 60); J Breach, L Tuima, A Reed (T Heard, 22), C MacDonald; H Aitchison, L Packer (E Wyrwas, 61)); M Carson (L Crake, 53), A Cokayne (L Davies, 53), S Bern (K Clifford, 53), Z Aldcroft (S Beckett, 60), P Cleall , S Kabeya, M Packer, S Hunter (C O’Donnell, 57).
Scotland: C Rollie; C Grant (L Musgrove, 51), E Orr, M Smith (B Blackrock, 63), F McGhiel; H Nelson, C Matthinson (M McDonald, 53)), L Bartlett (A Young, 66), L Skeldon (J Rettie, 53), C Belisle (E Clarke, 51), L O’Donnell (E Donaldson, 71), L McMillan, R Malcolm (E Sinclair, 64), R McLachlan, E Gallagher.
Referee: A Barrett-Theron (South Africa).
England v Scotland: As it happened. . .
There's been an awful lot of tears in the past few minutes
Buy why not. A great career coming to an end is very poignant as well as sentimental.
And on that Everest of triteness ... I will leave you. Daniel Schofield's report from Kingston Park will be here imminently.
Sarah Hunter speaks
I've been overwhelmed by it. it's been such an incredible week. To see the crowd ... it's been so, so special. I couldn't think of a better way to end my international career.
I didn't want to milk it but wanted to make sure I recognised and thanked the people who came here for their support. I wanted to bottle it. To savour the moment that I’d never get again. The crowd were incredible.
I feel really proud. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way [struggling through amateur days]. These girls will take it on and to the next level. They'll be the trailblazers [for professional era]. We had trailblazers who came before us and we had to take it on and pass it on [for the next generation].
I'm not stressed by what's next. Let's see where we go.
Player of the match, Marlie Packer
It's a whole new group of girls. We took things back to basics. Massive shout out to Sarah hunter but I'm super proud of what the girls have achieved tonight. It's an exciting time for women's sport, women's rugby and I'm super proud to be part of it.
We wanted to attack and play in a different area. We wanted to change the tempo. That is credit to Holly Aitchison and the way the girls wanted to play. We problem solved on the pitch. That is what you want from a team. We’re growing game by game.
I'm going to miss Sarah massively. She's not just an amazing rugby player she's an amazing human being. I'm her room-mate and we had a laugh last night. She's been with me my whole international journey but she won't miss [lugging that] big case around. I just hope that this week she’s really enjoyed it because what a career she’s had. It'll be a quiet night for us but she ought to be getting mortal as they say up here.
Full time ENG 58 SCO 7
Scotland keep coming, punching back hard. Too late, yes, but at least they're having a go with the extra woman. They are held up on the line when they punch a hole up the left then switch to the right. England celebrate their defensive work more than they celebrated some of their tries.
78 min ENG 58 SCO 7
Rollie makes 50m, weaving, bobbing, bouncing from one foot to the left. A lack of support means that when Emma SIng tackles her she hangs on too long 5m out and England have the pen.
TRY! ENG 58 SCO 5
Perfect run from Rollie to take Nelson's pass, evading tackles, bursting through Wrywas to go over on the left and take it infield to the left post. Excellent finish.
Nelson nails the conversion.
England 58 Scotland 7
73 min ENG 58 SCO 0
Beth Blakelock on debut makes a good break for Scotland, slipping a tackle and offloading to Eva Donaldson who is brought down but England then come in from the side and concede the penalty on halfway.
Try! ENG 58 SCO 0
Scotland win the scrum but get tied up breaking off the back of it and are penalised for holding on. England kick for touch and then roll the maul over for Marlie Packer to complete a 10-minute hat-trick.
England have 10 tries.
65 min ENG 53 SCO 0
Just before that try, the Tannoy man announced an attendance of 10,053. And just after England think they have another try when Sarah Beckett takes it over but there had been a knock-on in the build-up.
Poppy Cleall is being carried off with an injury to her lower right leg. Ankle, possibly. England will have to finish with XIV as they've used all their subs.
Eight v seven in the scrum for the knock on after the clock goes back on.
Try! ENG 53 SCO 0
A second for Marlie Packer, finishing off a driving maul on the right following a deep kick.
Tuima comes close with the conversion from the right but it whistles past the wrong side of the left upright.
62 min ENG 48 SCO 0
Another good attacking opportunity for England, created by McDonald's quick ball and Nelson's slippery, turning run, falls apart when England slow them back down again.
60 min ENG 48 SCO 0
And that's the signal for Sarah Hunter to take her leave of international rugby after 16 years and 141 caps. She is given a standing ovation and is applauded by her team-mates and the Scots as well.
Try! ENG 48 SCO 0
England punt the penalty into touch 5m out, win the lineout and wheel the maul over with Marlie Packer going over by the corner.
Tuima hooks the conversion.
58 min ENG 43 SCO 0
Aitchison and Nelson trade deep backs off the back of Scotland winning their own scrum. Scotland lineout back on their 10m line. They win it, make it to halfway and hen hold on too long to concede the penalty when the tackle turns into a ruck.
55 min ENG 43 SCO 0
Scotland scrum in their 10m line. They have a new tighthead, Jodie Rettie, and scrum-half, Mairi McDonald.
53 min ENG 43 SCO 0
England take off their front row and send on Lark Davies, Liz Crake and Kelsey Clifford.
Try! ENG 41 SCO 0
Kabeya hurdles Rollie and bursts through Gallagher's attempt to haul her back, bursting the tackle to go iver with sheer power. Set up by a great 15m run from Dow.
Tuima slots the conversion.
ENG 43 SCO 0.
48 min ENG 36 SCO 0
More Scotland promise comes to naught. Every error is punished by England. There is an understandable tentativeness to their play and, consequently, slow ball.
45 min ENG 36 SCO 0
After a Cokayne infringement gives Scotland an attacking scrum, England marmalise the Scots pack. It's relentless. Absolutely relentless.
Try! ENG 36 SCO 0
England rattle through the phases from the kick-off and Cleall goes over after running a fine, reverse line to go over from a metre or two. The try was built on big carries from Marlie Packer, two from Bern and one from Carson. Scotland were set for Aldcroft to go over but England fed Cleall instead who cut back across to target the defender's inside shoulder and giver her no chance.
Tuima pulls the conversion wide.
Half-time: ENG 31 SCO 0
What can you say? England are light years ahead of Scotland. Their execution hasn't been perfect, nor has it needed to be. But the runs of both wings, the bosh of Kabeya and Packer and the pace of the passing in attack have torn the Scots' defence apart. Scotland have had their moments and in a couple of years, when Smith and McGhie, for example, have more big game experience, things might ne different. But debutants coming into a hardened, professional team have it much easier than those coming into a callow side that has only just gone full-time.
40 min ENG 31 SCO 0
England, penalised for another high tackle, are let off the hook when Scotland fail to find touch from the penalty. Barely a minute after Orr was held up a metre short, England scored and it almost happened again after McGhie's close effort but Scotland manage to hold on until the whistle goes when Aitchison's crossfield bomb, looking for Breach, sails out of play.
38 min ENG 31 SCO 0
Rolling maul from Scotland and then a quick release from the right funnels the ball all the way across the pitch to McGhie who shimmies then darts for the line and almost gets there with her pace but Breach and Dow manage to hold her and Rollie up. So close.
36 min ENG 31 SCO 0
Scotland have possession and have had for a while but are going backwards because of the slowness of the pass and the lack of support runners raring out of the blocks. But Aldcroft's high tackle gives them an opportunity to kick for a lineout in the England 22.
33 min ENG 31 SCO 0
There's not much Scotland can do nor is there any shame in what they are doing given the huge discrepancy in playing numbers and financial resources. They are simply missing too many tackles against the second best team in the world.
Try! ENG 29 SCO 0
This is a cakewalk.. England are awarded a penalty for Scotland coming in at the side. They kick for touch on the left, 5m out, win the line-out and roll the maul over the line with Cokayne, as per, putting it down for the fifth try.
England 31 Scotland 0.
Try! ENG 22 SCO 0
Heard bundles her way through from 8m and Tuima nails this conversion from under the posts. Bonus point secured after 27 minutes.
The try was made by twin bursts from Bern and Cleall. Scotland, committing two tacklers to the ball carrier, are left short when England trample over them. At each breakdown they manage to get over the gainline. It's steamroller rugby. Fred Dibnah would lap this up.
ENG 24 SCO 0
26 min ENG 17 SCO 0
Scotland have had their moments but England keep punching holes and now they've scored again ...
Try! ENG 17 SCO 0
MacDonald runs it in from the 10m line, holding her perfect line when played in from winning the scrum, bursting between Orr, Smith and Rollie. The Scots full-back tries to keep pace but can't reel her in.
Tuima is the reserve kicker but hooks her second effort wide, too.
23 min ENG 12 SCO 0
Plenty of midfield bosh. Scotland scrum on halfway. They're going backwards but somehow Evie Gallagher manages to get it out to Mattinson who feeds McGhie down the blindside and, under huge pressure, knocks on. England scrum.
Try! ENG 12 SCO 0
Amy Cokayne bulldozes through from a metre on the right touchline. England stretched the defence to the left for a couple of phases and then recycled quickly and devastatingly out to the right, shifting the ball through the hands to give Cokayne a typical Cokayne chance to finish.
Reed, who was injured when holding up Scotland's Orr-led charge, departs to be replaced by Tatyana Head. England miss the conversion in Reed's absence.
17 min ENG 7 SCO 0
Penalty for England on halfway after Bartlett holds on too long following contact. When Scotland pass quickly they look dangerous which is why England are trying to tie them up.
15 min ENG 7 SCO 0
The match restarts with a 5m scrum. England win it and kick deep. Rollie catches the ball and advances 30m but England hold Scotland at the 10m line as Scotland go hither and yon, left to right. Breach intercepts but as England try ti launch the counter, there's a knock on on halfway.
13 min ENG 7 SCO 0
England manage to withstand a rapid Scotland counter-attack. Dow knocks on Hunter's kick and from the back of the scrum, Orr makes a fantastic run after Smith's penetrating diagonal burst with a turn of speed. The referee turns the clock off to check whether Orr managed to dot down but she was held up a metre short.
Try! England 5 Scotland 0
Claudia MacDonald goes over from 5m, pushing her way past Meryl Smith. It was set up for her by Lucy Packer's line-break, a punching run by Cleall, supported by Hunter and Aitchison's slick hands to set MacDonald off to finish.
Reed nails the conversion. England 7 Scotland 0.
6 min ENG 0 SCO 0
Helen Nelson takes the pragmatic option and skims a grubber from halfway out for a line-out 15m from the England line. England win it, Aitchison kicks long, deeper than the Scots defence but they scramble back and Sarah Bern, in the chase, gives up the penalty.
3 min ENG 0 SCO 0
After exchanging a couple of kicks, England rattle through the phases and try to pierce the Scotland defence with Jess Breach haring down the right. They make plenty of ground but the debutant McGhie makes a solid tackle and Scotland's defence eventually brings them the penalty to relieve the siege when Cleall doesn't roll away quickly enough.
1 min ENG 0 SCO 0
Meryl Smith kicks off for Scotland and England knock on, conceding a scrum on the left five yards out from England's 22. Big drive from England as Sarah Bern and Amy Cokayne pile through earn England a penalty.
Here come the teams.
Sarah Hunter leads out England, holding the hand of her niece, Isabella. The camera picks out her mum in her hometown crowd.
Time for the anthems, Flower of Scotland followed by God Save the King.
Her parents, mentors, teachers, siblings, niece, colleagues pay tribute to 'such a special rugby player, such a special human being, a phenomenal leader'.
Simon Middleton speaks about his last dance
I’m really happy with my decision and really excited to play another Six Nations. We’ve got a lot of new faces. We’ve had a great three weeks coaching them and we’ll see how we go.
We worked on a few things. We just want to see the girls go out there and make a statement for themselves. I think to see them enjoy themselves and do themselves justice will be important.
It couldn’t be better for [Sarah Hunter]. She’s going through the same routine she’s gone through 140 times. She’s given everything she’s had to the game and been the very best version of herself. It couldn’t be a better stage for her today.
The whistle has just gone at the Arms Park
Where Wales have hammered Ireland 31-5, scoring five tries and taking a 26-0 half-time lead, marmalising the Irish in the set piece.
England 15. Abby Dow, 14. Jessica Breach, 13. Lagi Tuima, 12. Amber Reed, 11. Claudia MacDonald, 10. Holly Aitchison, 9. Lucy Packer; 1. Mackenzie Carson, 2. Amy Cokayne, 3. Sarah Bern, 4. Zoe Aldcroft, 5. Poppy Cleall, 6. Sadia Kabeya, 7. Marlie Packer 8. Sarah Hunter.
Replacements 16. Lark Davies, 17. Liz Crake, 18. Kelsey Clifford, 19. Catherine O’Donnell, 20. Sarah Beckett, 21. Ella Wyrwas, 22. Tatyana Heard, 23. Emma Sing.
Scotland 15. Chloe Rollie, 14. Coreen Grant, 13. Emma Orr, 12. Meryl Smith, 11. Francesca McGhie, 10. Helen Nelson, 9. Caity Mattinson; 1. Leah Bartlett, 2. Lana Skeldon, 3. Christine Belisle, 4. Lyndsay O’Donnell, 5. Louise McMillan, 6. Rachel Malcolm , 7. Rachel McLachlan, 8. Evie Gallagher.
Replacements 16. Jodie Rettie, 17. Anne Young, 18. Elliann Clarke, 19. Eva Donaldson, 20. Eilidh Sinclair, 21. Mairi McDonald, 22. Beth Blacklock, 23. Liz Musgrove.
Scots are the longest of long shots but professional at last
Good afternoon and welcome to live coverage of England vs Scotland in the 2023 Women's Six Nations as the home side begins its campaign to win its fifth successive title, fourth Grand Slam and seventh Triple Crown (eliminating the uncompleted Covid years). We have heard an awful lot in the build-up about Sarah hunter's valedictory appearance in her home town for England and Simon Middleton's swansong championship at the helm of the Red Roses but precious little about those at the other stage of their careers, such as Scotland's Francesca McGhie, who is making her debut at Kingston Park this afternoon. in the 2023 TikTok Women's Six Nations opener against England on Saturday.
Scotland may not have beaten England since 1999 and start the game at 100-1 to win or even draw it, but the head coach, Bryan Easson, at last has a professional set-up to work with and is championing McGhie's raw, bold approach, perhaps as an inspiration for his side. What can she bring, he was asked. "Fearless. Excitement. A lot of pace.
"Fran was involved with the pathway last year, she is quite new to the game. She is a winger who has real pace. She scored five tries with The Thistles, our new team in Scotland which bridges the gap between club and international level. She was outstanding in those games. Give her a little bit of space and she will show what she's all about and I think that the fact that she is 19 as well, she doesn't know much in terms of the game but that really says to me a lot of excitement in there."
The Scotland squad goes into this tournament under different circumstances after Scottish Rugby announced last December that professional contracts had been awarded to 28 players, as part of its continued investment into the women's game.
Easson welcomed the move but believes material benefits may take time to emerge. "Undoubtedly, professionalism makes a massive difference," he said. "Clearly as coaches we want to see the performances grow in the field. That doesn't happen overnight. For me, it has mainly been the off-field stuff. We don't have to play on a Saturday and bring them back on a Sunday because they have to go to work on a Monday.
"In the last four weeks we have been able to have camps during the week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and be able to rest them. They are no longer training at night after a day's work. That has been the big difference – around rest and recovery – which allows us as coaches to increase intensity of training up to match intensity which in the longer term will improve performances. So that's been the big thing."
Scotland took the Wooden Spoon las year with five defeats, including the 57-5 shellacking by today's opponents. Easson knows the magnitude of the task ahead but is looking for "a consistent performance" from his side.
He said: "We have played England in the past and played well for 20 minutes or 25 minutes and then dropped off. For me it is having that consistent 80-minute performance. We will be under pressure at times because we are playing the best team in the world.
"So it is about consistent performances from us, staying with them for 80 minutes. We have lost the last nine games but six of those games have been within a score, in terms of bonus points.
"We want to turn those tighter games into one or two-point victories rather than two or three-point defeats."