Tatyana Heard taking Red Roses attack to a new level

Tatyana Heard taking Red Roses attack to a new level
Tatyana Heard was unstoppable for England Women - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

There are plenty who complain that modern rugby union has become homogeneous. And it is true that just about every team in the world runs some variation of the same attacking shape, with their inside centre standing flat to play a pull-back pass behind their midfield partner to a circling fly-half.

What often separates decent attacks from devastating ones is how slick this connection can be. Can it fix defenders narrow to manipulate space further wide? If opponents drift too early, is the inside centre sharp enough to react and throw a flat pass?

When Tatyana Heard is on the pitch for England, the answer is usually a resounding ‘yes’. The 29-year-old is the sort of operator that coaxes teams up to another level by producing moments of class that illuminate the attributes of those around her. She is a multi-faceted number 12 – flinty and fierce in contact yet highly skillful – and those are worth their weight in gold. This resembled a straightforward training session for England. By half-time, they had beaten 27 defenders to Ireland’s two and made 12 line breaks without conceding one. They finished with 1,548 running metres and 14 tries.

Even so, Heard robustly reinforced her importance to a squad that is brimming with midfield options. A rare error, if it can be classified as such, was an offload that dropped to the floor in the 47th minute. Moments later, when Dannah O’Brien hesitated, Heard clattered the Ireland fly-half backwards. The collision elicited a collective wince from the 48,000 in attendance. John Mitchell is sure to experience a few headaches regarding his cohort of backs in next year’s World Cup squad, such as whether Emily Scarratt remains indispensable. If Heard is fit, however, she is sure to be integral to England’s bid to avenge their gut-wrenching loss to New Zealand in the 2021 final.

Since that game, in which Heard briefly appeared from the bench as a temporary replacement for Abby Dow, England have endeavoured to expand as an attacking force. On the way to thrashing Ireland, they demonstrated a varied arsenal of weapons. Heard and Megan Jones combined nicely with Holly Aitchison as a starting 10-12-13 trio.

For try number four, which clinched the bonus point inside the opening quarter, Heard stepped up at first receiver to send Zoe Aldcroft carving through the middle and under the posts. Number six saw Heard go flat again, lifting the ball behind a carving Jones to Aitchison. The latter had begun on Heard’s left shoulder before reappearing on the right. That deception, even in a pattern that everyone uses, is extremely difficult to contain. Aitchison fed the phenomenal Ellie Kildunne, who gave Abby Dow a walk-in.

Just before the break, as part of the same shape, with Aitchson lurking deeper, Heard picked the flat runner and sent Jones clear. The try was chalked off for a marginally forward pass. England’s back three tore over the Twickenham turf all afternoon, but those inside them created the space.

Shortly into the second period, for instance, looping passes from Aitchison, Heard and Jones freed Jess Breach. Heard and Jones complemented versatile distribution and shrewd decision-making with dangerous carrying, the former punching holes and the latter dancing into gaps. In most other sides, they would be guaranteed starters. England possesses greater depth.

Scarratt, understandably rusty in the first outing of the Six Nations against Italy and being tried out in the unfamiliar role of inside centre by Mitchell, arrived as Heard’s replacement in the 63rd minute. With the score at 57-10, it would have been easy for England to drift to the final whistle. Instead, Scarratt helped to torment a tired Ireland outfit.

She swung a pass off her left hand to set up a 70-metre break-out, finished by Dow, with her first touch before slipping a beautiful, no-look pull-back to a roaming Dow for Kildunne’s second. Kildunne completed her hat-trick, sweeping England past 80 points, from another delicate Scarratt touch, this time from the outside of the veteran’s right boot. Do not forget that Helena Rowland, arguably the stand-out of the 2021 World Cup for England, has had her Six Nations wiped out after picking up an injury in the first game.

The last step of this Grand Slam effort, a trip to Bordeaux, is the toughest and will put Mitchell’s centre selection under the most scrutiny. England can hope for a meaningful test of World Cup planning in that respect. Some would argue that England’s men have been striving for midfield stability since 2003. The sheer quality of Heard, Jones, Scarratt et al suggests that, in midfield, Mitchell cannot lose.