Simon Middleton believes there are few better players in world rugby right now than Poppy Cleall after the No.8 starred in England’s Women’s Six Nations win over Scotland.
Middleton’s side began the defence of their crown, in this year’s unique, standalone format, with a comprehensive 52-10 win in which they ran in eight tries at Doncaster’s Castle Park.
Jess Breach notched up the pick of the scores with a brilliant solo run while Marlie Packer, Leanne Riley, Lark Davies, Bryony Cleall, Helena Rowland and Poppy Cleall all dotted down, while Hannah Smith managed Scotland’s only try in an improved second-half display from the visitors.
It was Cleall though who stole the show, having a hand in two tries and making 115 metres from 19 carries to run Scotland ragged.
“There’d have to be a pretty good player to be better than her,” Middleton said.
“I think her all-around game is pretty sensational and the impact she consistently has in games suggests so [she’s the best player in the world right now].”
Despite the praise, Middleton was left frustrated with a second-half showing that was sloppy in parts.
England added just 19 points to their half-time tally but, more worryingly, conceded a raft of penalties as well as two yellow cards – leading to the head coach to call for improvements.
“First half, I was really pleased,” Middleton added.
“I think we got ourselves into a position where we wanted to be but it just because a really fractious game in the second half. I think we lost our focus and we lost our rhythm.
“There’s plenty for us to go at. Execution in the backline will definitely be one of them. Catching the ball with the line wide open will be another.
“Not running into touch with the ball, not throwing the ball into touch, not kicking the ball away inaccurately.
“We’ll have a look at the penalty count, we’ll have a look at what the penalties were for.
“There will definitely be some areas that we need to smarten up in terms of our discipline.
“Lots of bits to work on but some things we’ll definitely look at and go ‘yeah, we’ve moved that in the right direction’.”
With more to potentially come, there are ominous signs for the rest as the Red Roses bid for a fourth Championship in its last five contested editions.
The other Cleall sister, Bryony, also stood out as England flexed their muscles with a creative attacking display in the first half and, with Italy to come next weekend, the path to the final is clear.
Emily Scarratt, the 2020 Player of the Championship, took the captain’s armband with Sarah Hunter still on the comeback trail and her team mixed with youth and experience left her feeling excited after a long overdue return to action.
“It feels like it’s been a long time coming,” she said.
“Obviously we’re used to playing the Six Nations slightly earlier so we’ve had a long training period so we were all chomping at the bit to get out there and play.
“It wasn’t perfect, it was never going to be perfect but to get that first win under the belt is pleasing for us.
“They’re [Poppy and Bryony Cleall] a bit of a force aren’t they? I’m pretty glad they’re on my team. The pair of them are brilliant rugby players.
“You think about them in terms of their carrying ability and the big shots they’ll put in but actually both of them today were out in the wide channels spinning 15 metre passes like a back.
“They’ve got a great range of skills, great to have those two out there.”