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Women's Six Nations: England make attacking changes as Red Roses seek rugby perfection

Red Roses head coach John Mitchell and attack coach Lou Meadows have implemented an attack filled with passing and combinations between backs and forwards, taking England on from game plan focused on set-piece and driving mauls; England host Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday (2.15pm)

Lou Meadows, Red Roses, John Mitchell
Image: Red Roses attack coach Lou Meadows and head coach John Mitchell have implemented a key change to their attack

England's Red Roses have won five Women's Six Nations titles in a row and are seeking a fifth Grand Slam in six years, yet they have made a fundamental change to their attacking play in 2024. 

Why? Well, for all their European domination, a Rugby World Cup crown has alluded them, and for head coach John Mitchell and attack coach Lou Meadows, a major part of this was due to predictability in attack and an overreliance on the lineout maul.

Indeed, not since 2014 have the Red Roses won the World Cup, losing to New Zealand's Black Ferns in 2017 and 2021 finals - the latter of those a particularly painful defeat at Eden Park in Auckland from 14-0 ahead, with England having been the world's dominant side prior to the showpiece final.

Put simply, England's lineout maul and scrum is and has been far superior to the vast majority of opponents they face. As such, a pack laden with quality has been able to grind down and destroy teams without intricate attacking play needed, or sometimes even thought of, within Test matches.

When Mitchell replaced Simon Middleton this season, he was clear their attack was an area of key focus.

Speaking to Sky Sports, Mitchell said: "We definitely have power and depth. We're probably a little bit one-dimensional, and sometimes success can create a focus on outcome and results, and I think that doesn't necessarily improve your performance."

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Mitchell discussed his role with the Red Roses as the side chase their sixth straight Six Nations title

Enter Meadows, a former teacher and most recently England Women U20 head coach before signing on to join the senior set-up in May.

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Having represented Wasps and Saracens during her playing career, Meadows went on to become the first female head coach of an England men's aspirational side when she coached England Counties U20s.

Just as Andy Farrell's Ireland have become the blueprint for other sides to emulate in the men's game with their wonderful attacking patterns combining forwards and backs, Meadows has sought to implement something similar.

Indeed, the Red Roses have gone from a side near totally fixated with kicking to the corner for rolling maul opportunities, to a more balanced attacking side enhanced with more strings to their bow.

Lou Meadows
Image: Attack coach Meadows has led a shift away from close-range carries and a fixation on lineout mauls to a passing game

The stats tell as much. No side so far in the 2024 Women's Six Nations has produced as many passes between five and 10 metres as England. The Red Roses have also completed more than double the amount of passes over 10 metres than each side bar France - with whom another exciting Grand Slam decider firmly looks on the cards.

England still have a remarkably strong scrum. And they still have the best lineout and maul in the women's game. Added to that, though, they now have a functioning attack which is humming.

Full-back Ellie Kildunne is playing sensational rugby, ably assisted by creative fly-half Holly Aitchison - for whom passing is a central strength.

PARMA, ITALY - MARCH 24: during the Guinness Women's Six Nations 2024 match between Italy and England at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi on March 24, 2024 in Parma, Italy. (Photo by Chris Ricco - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)
Image: Ellie Kildunne has been playing magnificent rugby from full-back for the Red Roses in 2024

Wings Jess Breach and Abby Dow remain potent finishers, while forwards such as back-rows Alex Matthews and Sadia Kabeya have been noticeably involved in attacking plays within the wide spaces.

Despite suffering red cards in two games (Poppy Cleall vs Italy after 11 minutes, Amy Cokayne vs Scotland after 55 minutes), England's scorelines have been emphatic: 48-0 vs Italy, 46-10 vs Wales, 46-0 vs Scotland. Their attack, allied to their power, has ripped teams apart.

The Red Roses next host Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday in Round 4 - the second standalone women's rugby Test at the venue in history following last March's clash against France. Nearly 45,000 tickets have already been sold.

Image: Forwards such as flanker Sadia Kabeya have been used out wide as part of passing-filled attacks
holly aitchison
Image: Holly Aitchison is playing well in a facilitator role from fly-half

"The girls are extremely skilled in passing anyway, it was just about unleashing that in the right moments of the game," Meadows told The Telegraph.

"If we keep catching and carrying then we become really predictable and easy to defend. Getting on board and releasing the outside channels or interlinking with forwards on a tip line or an offload - that continuity of attack is really hard to defend against."

Speaking to Sky Sports at Twickenham in February, Mitchell admitted he has taken on the role of Red Roses head coach to win a Rugby World Cup.

England v France - TikTok Women's Six Nations - Twickenham Stadium
England's Marlie Packer celebrates with the Women's Six Nations trophy after the TikTok Women's Six Nations at Twickenham Stadium, London. Picture date: Saturday April 29, 2023.
Image: England and skipper Marlie Packer are seeking a sixth Women's Six Nations title in succession

The 60-year-old New Zealander worked as defence coach of the England men's side under Eddie Jones between 2018 and 2021, and as forwards coach under Clive Woodward between 1997 and 2000.

He was also All Blacks head coach between 2001 and 2003, and most recently worked as Japan's defence coach between 2022 and 2023, before taking over the England Women's side.

"It's real fun. It's refreshing, it gets you up every day. Being in the game for a while, you've got to try and find ways to learn as well, and evolve," Mitchell said.

"Being a senior assistant coach for a period of time has been really beneficial, but I always said to myself I do owe myself the chance to lead a program again, and I thought: 'Wow, this is an outstanding opportunity.'

England A Training Session - Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium - Saturday 26th June
England Defence coach John Mitchell during the training session at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium, Leicester. Picture date: Saturday June 26, 2021.
Image: Mitchell will lead the Red Roses through the 2024 Six Nations, finishing away to France, and then into a 2025 where England will host the Women's World Cup

"This is a team which has a winning mentality but it's been 10 years since they've won a World Cup. I really like that challenge, and I'm going to give that a go."

Unmatched powerful forward play combined with an evolved attacking shape and game-plan? The Red Roses under Mitchell and Meadows are seeking rugby perfection.

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