England saw off the challenge of a spirited Ireland outfit to triumph 31-0 and secure a record sixth successive RBS Women’s Six Nations title, the fifth with a Grand Slam.
The shutout means that England conceded just eight points in five matches with Italy the only side to cross their line in a 68-5 loss in round two, scoring 223 points along the way – almost double that of runners-up France.
A sixth successive title comes only six months after England suffered the heartbreak of losing yet another Women’s Rugby World Cup final to New Zealand, this time on home soil in London.
England’s new captain Katy McLean opened the scoring with an eighth minute try following a sustained period of possession at Ashbourne RFC, before number 8 Sarah Hunter touched down to send the visitors in with a 12-0 lead at half time.
"A tremendous achievement"
Roared on by their traditional vocal supporters, Ireland were unable to find a way through some resilient English defence and instead fell further behind with props Rochelle Clark and Sophie Hemming crossing for tries, the latter for her first England score.
The icing on the Grand Slam cake came late on when influential flanker Maggie Alphonsi powered her way over the line after a good drive from former captain Catherine Spencer, who has since announced her retirement from rugby.
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“Obviously I am absolutely delighted with this result, but most importantly the effort from the players,” admitted England coach Gary Street, who has now guided the national side to four titles.
“After the World Cup there could have been a hangover but it is an absolute credit to the girls the way they have come back and put the work in on and off the field.
“We have challenged the players this season, we wanted them to get even better and move on from last term and they have done exactly that.
“Once again not only did we score some good tries but we defended excellently. We have set another Championship record in terms of points conceded and I think that is a tremendous achievement.”
France, semi finalists at Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010, had to settle for second place behind England for the second year in a row after picking up their fourth win of the Championship, 15-10 against Wales in Bourgoin.
"Lot of potential" for Wales
The French backline have looked dangerous with the ball in hand throughout the Championship and capitalised on two Welsh mistakes to score tries through wings Dioni Aguerre and Laurelin Fourcade at the Stade Pierre Rajon.
Wales produced a spirited display before a 4,000 strong partisan crowd, but were made to pay for failing to turn possession into points, missing three shots at goal in the opening half that would have kept the pressure on their French hosts.
Jamie Kift looked to have got the visitors back into the match but spilt the ball over the line and instead it was France who made certain of victory with a penalty try following concerted pressure on the Welsh line.
“This will be a good experience for the players going forward,” admitted assistant coach Rhys Edwards. “We are a young side and to play in front of nearly 5,000 is something that most of them wouldn’t have experienced before.
“It can be a cruel game sometimes. We went through 13 or 14 phases only to lose the ball and they end up scoring, that's what it's all about at this level, you've got to take any chance that comes your way.
"The players picked up their game in the second spell and took the game to France. France are a very skilful side but we held them in check which is a good omen for the future. There’s a lot of potential in this side and we can take a lot of positives out of this campaign.”
Wales collected the wooden spoon 12 months ago but this time finished fourth overall, sandwiched on point differential between Ireland and Italy who also recorded two victories in the 2011 Championship.
Best season yet for Italy
Two wins makes this Italy’s most successful season since joining the Championship and shows they are moving in the right direction having failed to qualify for last year’s Women’s Rugby World Cup, losing out to Sweden in the European qualifying tournament in May 2009.
Italy’s most recent success was a 26-0 victory over Scotland at Meggetland on Sunday, condemning their hosts to the wooden spoon after a Championship that has seen them score only 20 points and concede 231 under new coach Karen Findlay.
Veronica Schiavon kicked Italy into a 9-0 advantage before a yellow card to captain Susie Brown on the occasion of her 50th cap proved costly for Scotland with flanker Michaela Este finding a gap to touch down on the stroke of half time.
With Brown still off the field, Italy again made their advantage count within minutes of the restart, wing Manuela Furlan scoring the visitors’ second try to increase their lead to 21-0 after Schiavon failed to add the conversion.
Scotland, beaten 89-0 by England a week earlier at Twickenham, kept plugging away at the Italian defence but couldn’t turn pressure into points, allowing Schiavon to take her tally to 16 with a try nine minutes from time.
“I think the effort and the commitment on the back of the heavy defeat last weekend was visible and we were still battling away right at the end,” insisted coach Findlay.
“We need to get a lot smarter when we get into the opposition’s 22 and finish off a job. We had a huge amount of territory today that we couldn’t turn into points. That's the end of a hard season and we'll move on.”
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