Poppy Cleall proves her leadership credentials in England’s Six Nations triumph
The sight of Poppy Cleall traipsing off the pitch with ten minutes to go as in England’s Six Nations grand final, using her shirt as a makeshift sling to cradle her battered shoulder, looked ominous in the crisp Twickenham sunshine.
It was when England arguably looked their most vulnerable – leading by a single point against a ferocious French side which were once again on the attack. But even without their star No 8, England held their nerve, closed the game out with a textbook late Emily Scarratt penalty and retained their Six Nations crown.
There is a sense France are edging closer to breaking England’s hegemony, even if this was their eighth consecutive defeat to Simon Middleton’s side as a semi-professional collective. In three of their last five meetings with the Red Roses, they have come up short by a margin of six points or fewer. But in England’s armoury there is a weapon that the French lack – it is called Poppy Power.
Leadership has been a buzzword for England throughout this condensed Six Nations campaign. This was their first major tournament without their 2014 World-Cup winning half partnership of Katy Daley-Mclean and Natasha Hunt, the former having retired, with the latter currently taking a break from international rugby.
When Scarratt left the field for a head injury assessment after a quarter of an hour played, having uncharacteristically missed two penalties – Cleall stepped up and shone as England’s driving force.
Their talismanic kicker returned to the fold just as Cleall was dusting herself down from the latest blue shirt that had flown into her. With Middleton having openly talked her up after his side’s opening-round win over Scotland as the best player in the world right now, Cleall was naturally on France’s hit-list, having brushed off a thumping tackle from France’s young prop Rose Bernadou to the boisterous jeers of ‘Allez!’ minutes earlier.
Having shown her competitive temperament in previous games for club and country, the Saracens forward could have easily retaliated, but she simply got up and kept focused, perhaps in a nod to her former life as a prison officer. Tightening her hair scrunchy for the umpteenth time, the 28-year-old offered BBC 2 viewers a glimpse of the destiny that she is fast creating for herself: that of a future England captain.
It was thanks to her quick-thinking that England had the ascendancy at the break. With 90 seconds left in the first half, Cleall astutely tapped and wheeled forward from the base of a scrum. Legs pumping, she shrugged off two tackles before sweetly popping the ball up to her club teammate Zoe Harrison, who fell inches shy of the line. Sensing an opportunity, Cleall instinctively picked up and crashed over in clinical fashion to steady England’s floundering ship.
Off the pitch, there are ever-growing signs that it is only a matter of time before Cleall becomes England’s post-World Cup leader. In an era where athlete activism is becoming ever more significant for sportswomen, earlier this year she directly called out rugby sportswear giant Pro Direct Rugby for failing to feature a single female player on their Instagram platform. Since her intervention, the rugby clothing company has started posting photos of women’s rugby players.
In a telling sign of her value on the field, it was lock Abbie Ward, not Cleall, who was sacrificed when Sarah Hunter was brought on to offer some level-headedness when England were up against it in the second half. It is not that Hunter’s leadership is waning – far from it.
The 35-year-old’s work rate and expertise in directing Scarratt to take the late penalty kick stand testament to the calm and authoritative presence she still undeniably has. The assumption that Cleall will be giving similar instructions in future years is a pretty safe one, judging by the compelling case she has made in this short-lived Women’s Six Nations.