Six Nations: Improving Ireland face toughest test of Bemand era away to England

With Aoife Wafer making hay out wide, other carriers delivering and Aoibheann Riley maintaining a high tempo, Ireland have shown an attacking identity

England v Ireland: Twickenham, Saturday, April 20th, 2.15pm (Virgin Media 1, BBC 2)

Boosted by their convincing win over Wales last week, Ireland head into the most daunting assignment imaginable in the Women’s Six Nations when coming up against the all-singing, all-dancing and all-conquering English juggernaut in front of more than 47,000 fans at Twickenham.

Ireland’s 36-5 victory over Wales in Musgrave Park last week was vivid proof of the significant improvements in performance levels by Scott Bemand’s reconfigured team in this year’s championship.

After the defensive resistance away to France, despite the round two defeat at home to Italy there had been clear signs of a new-found attacking shape and ambition, which was undermined by some poor decision-making and those 27 handling errors against the Azzurri, many of which were in the opposition 22.

But, of course, that demonstrated this side were now creating much more opportunities. With Aoife Wafer making hay in the outside channels, the other go-to carriers also delivering and Aoibheann Reilly maintaining a high tempo and a good mix to her game, so the tries duly flowed against Wales.


This ended a seven-game losing streak in the Six Nations but the real pity is that the highly influential Sam Monaghan, who made 14 carries in her 48 minutes on the pitch last week and is such a reference point for Ireland’s lineout and attacking game, has been ruled out.

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Hannah O’Connor, who performed well in France, returns and the only other change sees Aoife Dalton restored in midfield as Bemand seeks to use his insider knowledge on England given he was their attack coach from 2015 to 2023 when the Red Roses hoovered up five Grand Slams and a title in seven championships.

The new England coach John Mitchell has made two changes from the side which beat

Scotland 46-0 last week, with captain Marlie Packer returning at openside, meaning a switch from back row to lock for Zoe Aldcroft, while Lark Atkin-Davies returns at hooker.

True to his attacking inclinations, Bemand has maintained the game is not an exercise in damage limitation, although the weight of evidence pointing to a home win is enormous.

England have won a staggering 27 matches in a row in the Six Nations dating back to an 18-17 defeat to France in 2018, the longest ever winning run by any side in the history of the men’s or women’s championships.

The Red Roses have averaged 50 points per game during that run. This has seen them win four Grand Slams in a row as well as the abbreviated, covid-affected Six Nations of 2020.

They have also won their last 20 Six Nations home games by an average winning margin of 37 points and have won 19 of their previous 21 matches against Ireland, including all 11 of these encounters on English soil. On the last three occasions the sides have met, England have won by 27-0, 69-0 and 48-0, the latter coming in Cork last year.

Also more experienced, 17 of this English match-day 23 were involved in last year’s Grand Slam-deciding Twickenham clash with France in front of a world record crowd of 58,458, and they have carried on in their own inimitably dominant fashion this season, recording three bonus point wins despite two red cards, while scoring 24 tries and conceding one.

The potent English backline remains the same for the third match in a row with the backthree of Jess Breach, Ellie Kildunne and Abby Dow scoring five of England’s eight tries in the 46-0 victory over Scotland a week ago. Indeed, Kildunne has scored a brace in each of England’s three games so far and the fullback also leads the Championship for metres made (441) and line breaks (7) this year.

This suggests that Lauren Delany, Katie Corrigan and Beibhinn Parsons, who are selected in the backthree for a fourth game in succession, will have their hands full, but despite this Wafer echoed Bemand’s outlook sentiments in vowing that Ireland are determined not to just soak up pressure.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it? 45,000 tickets?” Wafer said this week. “A lot of our girls never would have played in front of that sort of crowd. I haven’t played in front of that sort of crowd. You do have to give credit to the English. They are arguably the best team in the world and have been for a number of years.

“It’s the first time I’ll play against England, and I don’t think the Irish need any extra ammunition when it comes to an English game. We’re not going to go there to sit down and play along with the English party.

“We’re going to send ripples and fire shots. We’ll definitely have a game plan and see what we can do. It’s gonna be an exciting one.”

England: Ellie Kildunne; Abby Dow, Megan Jones, Tatyana Heard, Jess Breach; Holly Aitchison, Natasha Hunt; Hannah Botterman, Lark Atkin-Davies, Maud Muir; Zoe Aldcroft, Rosie Galligan; Sadia Kabeya, Marlie Packer (capt) Alex Matthews.

Replacements: Connie Powell, Mackenzie Carson, Kelsey Clifford, Morwenna Talling, Maddie Feaunati, Lucy Packer, Emily Scarratt, Sydney Gregson.

Ireland: Lauren Delany; Katie Corrigan, Eve Higgins, Aoife Dalton, Béibhinn Parsons; Dannah O’Brien, Aoibheann Reilly; Linda Djougang, Neve Jones, Christy Haney; Dorothy Wall, Hannah O’Connor; Aoife Wafer, Edel McMahon (capt), Brittany Hogan.

Replacements: Clíodhna Moloney, Niamh O’Dowd, Sadhbh McGrath, Fiona Tuite, Shannon Ikahihifo, Molly Scuffil-McCabe, Enya Breen, Méabh Deely.

Referee: Aurélie Groizeleau (France)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times