Women’s Six Nations 2023: Can professional Scotland close gap to England?


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England players in training
Venue: Kingston Park, Newcastle Date: Saturday, 25 March Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Coverage: Watch live on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport website & app; listen on BBC Radio 5 Live & BBC Sounds; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app.

Much of the talk around the 2023 Women’s Six Nations has centred on ‘the gap’.

Professional sides England and France have dominated the tournament for the past seven years.

Now that the other four teams have widespread player contracts too, there is hope they can catch up.

But hope is unlikely to be enough for Scotland when they open their tournament against England in Newcastle on Saturday.

In the history of the fixture, Scotland have only beaten England twice in 31 attempts – the last time in 1999.

The Red Roses won 57-5 last year and are now seeking a 20th victory in a row in the tournament – on the way to what could be a fifth successive Six Nations title.

Conversely, Scotland have tasted success in just one of their last 17 games in the tournament, have lost their last nine in a row in all competitions and finished sixth in 2022.

In recent years, this gap can be put down to professionalism. England have had contracts since 2019 and Scotland only got theirs in December 2022.

It is understandable, then, that, although vice-captain Helen Nelson insisted Scotland can win on Saturday, captain Rachel Malcolm said it was “too soon” to close the gap.

The England encounter is instead a chance to try new things before the battle for third place begins against Wales in round two.

“If any team is going to expose your weaknesses it’s going to be England,” added Malcolm.

“To have that first up, we can learn from that and take it into the rest of the tournament.”

As for England, co-captain Marlie Packer has suggested a narrower gap might be better for the Red Roses when World Cups come around.

England’s Six Nations dominance helped them to a record 30-Test winning streak, which ended in World Cup final heartbreak against New Zealand in November 2022.

“For me personally, that 30 winning streak – maybe if we’d lost here and there we’d have been dealt different cards,” Packer said of the final on Radio 4.

Injury-hit set-piece v new attack

There are some minor cracks in the England machine.

With several props missing because of injury, personal reasons or retirement, head coach Simon Middleton said his team are down to the “bare bones” in that position.

Former Canada prop Mackenzie Carson will make her England debut after benefiting from World Rugby’s birthright transfer rule, while the uncapped Liz Crake and Kelsey Clifford are on the bench.

There are injuries at fly-half too, meaning Holly Aitchison will take over from Zoe Harrison in that position.

Scotland’s shake-up comes on the wings, where 19-year-old Francesca McGhie makes her debut and Coreen Grant gets a first start.

A new World Cup cycle brings change on both sides. Nine of Scotland’s matchday 23 have fewer than 10 international caps, while for England it is eight players.

Despite the new faces in the front row, Carson says set-piece is “a huge focus” for England, adding the pack wants to get “that front-foot ball so our backs can do their thing”.

Scotland’s Malcolm, meanwhile, promises something new following Chris Laidlaw’s arrival as attack coach.

She said they have worked on “adapting our attack to stress defences out more” after several narrow defeats in 2022.

“We’re a hard team to score against but we’re not putting enough points on the board, which is putting us in that position where games are so tight,” added Malcolm.

“Hopefully you’ll see a slightly more exciting attack looking to move the ball a bit more and spread it a bit wider and manipulate defences a bit more.”

Hunter faces emotional goodbye

Whatever the result, Saturday will be a historic – and emotional – day for women’s rugby.

The 37-year-old’s 141st Test will come in her home city of Newcastle, where the Red Roses have sold out Kingston Park on their first visit to the ground.

England’s Middleton, who will also step down after the tournament, said of his captain: “When somebody gives as much as they can give to so many facets of the game, then they deserve a bit of payback.

“She’s got as much credit in the bank as she could have. She will put in a great performance – we’ll be left wishing she was staying for another four games.

Of England’s bid for a fifth successive title, he added: “You’ve got five other nations who want that trophy as well and are far better positioned this year to have a crack at it. It’s going to take some winning.”

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