With the Six Nations combatants taking a well earned break last weekend, this week's Expert Witness changes its focus to the Women's Six Nations tournament. With the competition producing some unexpected results this season, we welcome England flank and superstar of the Women's game, Maggie Alphonsi MBE.
With England, formally a dominant force in the Women's Six Nations, showing a marked decline if not in form but in results, and with Italian ladies mirroring their male counterparts by defeating arch-rivals France, this years' tournament has thrown up a few shocks and surprises already. Alphonsi is quick to point out that, where England are concerned, their dip is almost by design rather than by accident.
"With the World Cup 7's tournament later on this year, the Management and Coaches have deliberately decided to remove 17 players from our EPS in order to place their focus on the Sevens World Cup. It does mean that we're fielding quite an inexperienced side in the Six Nations, but from our perspective, it also allows us to build to the next Women's 15 a side World Cup in 2014.
"Winning tournaments like that demands strength in depth, and we've been delighted by the reaction of a few of the players we've thrown in the deep end, so to speak!"
Two youngsters who have made a massive impression already are openside Hannah Gallagher and number eight Harriet Mills. Alphonsi welcomes the competition in her favoured back-row position:
"My injury, combined with the players removed from the EPS have given both Hannah and Harriet a real opportunity, and they've performed well. Having this level of competition in the squad keeps everyone honest. I realise that Hannah's displays mean I have to work extra hard if I'm to meet my comeback targets after my knee operation. I'm due back in a few weeks and am looking forward to it." (Alphonsi underwent surgery for a Meniscus tear in her knee earlier this season).
Ireland and France have both been very strong this season. In addition Italy have shown remarkable improvement and the competition seems very strong. What has caused the levelling of the playing field? Alphonsi believes that the Women's game is becoming more and more professional.
"France, Ireland and Italy have followed England's lead by investing intelligently and putting in place much tighter and progressive structures. The result is we're starting to see real athletes in the Women's game and even looking back 4 or 5 years, the fitness and power levels have increased significantly.
"If you take a team like Ireland, whilst they've always been a good side, they've made sure that the leading four provinces have the majority of their international players. As in the men's game, the Irish are very good at selecting known club partnerships. These players play together from a young age and that understanding shows," explained Alphonsi.
"Looking back at the results, Italy's commitment to improving their game showed when they took France in the opening round. However, I think Wales felt the French backlash when they beat them and nilled them fairly and squarely at home a couple of weeks later!" observed Alphonsi.
"The next round has some very interesting fixtures, but the Irish/French game stands out to me. It's a tough one to call, and it could turn out to be the championship decider, but Ireland have played well this year and will be a tough nut to crack at their home ground, Ashbourne RFC."
So it appears the Women's game is in rude health. The growth in the game is exponential, with an increase of over 104 percent in playing numbers in England in the last nine years. As England's ladies focus on the World Cups ahead, Alphonsi admits she's been thoroughly enjoying this year's men's Six Nations.
"It's been a tournament of very fine margins," she observed.
"England have a knack of winning the close games and winning them ugly if they need to, and that's a great habit and one all good sides have.
"There's much talk of a Grand Slam for England, but playing Italy is always a hugely physical encounter," she added.
"Italy take a lot out of the players. They are big and physical. England's first priority will be to win, but secondly to keep knocks and injuries down to a minimum.
"Scotland's turn around has also impressed me. They have a couple of high quality players in Stuart Hogg and Kelly Brown and those guys are leading from the front.
"Going back to England, I think that other sides in the competition have left their rebuilding for RWC 2015 slightly late. England are a year ahead in terms of blooding youngsters and knowing their best 23 players. Stuart Lancaster is picking from many options, depending on form, gameplan and fitness, and that's an enviable position to be in."
Alphonsi has had a long lay-off from the game. A meniscus tear in her knee required extensive surgery and has meant an enforced absence for the player they call The Machine.
"It's always important not to rush back in these situations. I'm comfortable with my progress and I expect to be playing in a reasonably short period of time, certainly this season," confirmed the Saracens flanker.
So that's it for this week's Expert Witness. For the next round of Six Nations games, it will be business as normal as we catch up with another legend of rugby to cast an eye over Round Four of the Six Nations.
Tickets are available for England's home match against Italy on March 9th, KO 1pm at Esher, here
Maggie Alphonsi spoke to James While