Twenty and counting. England rang the changes in Parma after their emphatic win in Edinburgh but the result was the same, Simon Middleton’s side scoring 12 tries for that 20th successive victory. France had looked mightily impressive on Saturday and they are the only side that can live with England. Their meeting with the Red Roses at the end of the month is certain to decide the destiny of this year’s Women’s Six Nations.
In one of those nine changes the head coach made from the previous weekend the scrum‑half Natasha Hunt returned for her first international match in 18 months. Hunt is said to have fallen out of love with the game during lockdown but she looked delighted again to be in a white shirt, forming an instant rapport with her half-back partner Zoe Harrison.
It was a pretty perfect return for Hunt, who was named player of the match by the Italian hosts, and she has put down a marker for a World Cup place this autumn in New Zealand as England try to win the trophy they last held in 2014.
Lydia Thompson might have had a claim to that award with a hat-trick of tries, the final score coming with the last move of the match. It was a ruthless performance by England against a side that was overwhelmed.
The only small cloud on the Red Rose horizon was an injury to their captain, Poppy Cleall, who finished with an ice-pack around her right knee after a thumping tackle from the Italian lock Sara Tounesi.
For Italy it was a desperate afternoon. It is not easy when a side is forced to make more than 200 tackles in a match and Italy competed well at the breakdown but eventually their blue defensive wall was breached time and again and they compounded their misery with countless errors.
Little was seen of their talented centre Beatrice Rigoni, who was shown a yellow card near the end for killing the ball. It summed up Italy’s day. Sadly there was never much doubt who were the professionals and who were the amateurs out there.
Hunt helped to fashion the first try after four minutes, Sarah McKenna as surprised as anyone to stroll over in the corner with no defender in sight. England had looked to run the ball from the first whistle and, when Helena Rowland found some space on the right, the centre smartly worked England’s other wing, Thompson, over in the corner.
The England pack drove forwards from a lineout and Lark Davies plunged over for a third try. The Harlequins prop Shaunagh Brown then battered her way for the fourth bonus-point try with less than half an hour on the clock and Italy were clearly in for a long afternoon. The outstanding Alex Matthews, another of the changes from the previous week, was driven over by her fellow forwards before the break.
The one-way traffic continued in the second half as England stretched the Italian defence and Thompson glided over for her second try. Vicky Fleetwood, a replacement early in the second half, was also soon on the try‑scoring act with a score from a drive by the forwards from a lineout. Fleetwood, though, was positively sluggish in scoring her try compared to Sarah Bern who had been on the field for seconds when, with her first touch of the ball, she streamed 30 metres down the touchline to outflank the tiring Italian defence.
The theme continued when Emma Sing came on. It was not Rowland’s best pass but the ball stuck and the full-back raced away to score in the same corner. Middleton had waited to a quarter of an hour from the end before bringing on Emily Scarratt who latched on to a perfect little grubber kick from Harrison to score near the posts. It needed the intervention of the television match official to rule that England had not obstructed a defender but by now it was turning into an onslaught.
Hunt said: “I played a small part in fizzing the ball out to that incredible backline.” She was being modest but Hunt knows that she was given an armchair ride by her dominant pack, forwards who are being honed into a real force under the tutelage of the former England lock Louis Deacon.
Cleall said: “We worked our socks off out there. It didn’t pay off all of the time but we brought on nine players and it was pretty seamless.”
Middleton will no doubt be tinkering with his line-up again when his side meet rejuvenated Wales at Kingsholm this weekend. In truth, it will hardly matter whom he picks on the strength of another impressive afternoon’s work.