A Women’s Six Nations like never before concluded with an enthralling Finals Day as England reasserted their dominance over their northern hemisphere rivals, writes Andy Baber.
The Red Roses overcame France in a bruising encounter at the Twickenham Stoop as Simon Middleton’s side defended their crown and sealed a third consecutive title.
Even an adjusted tournament structure due to the coronavirus pandemic, a new April window, and an unprecedented Finals Day format could not stop England from maintaining their grip on the trophy.
But as the dust settles on another thrilling Championship, who were the players who impressed most over the four consecutive weekends of action-packed drama?
Zoe Aldcroft (England)
Labelled “exceptional” by her head coach, Zoe Aldcroft was one of the few England players who played every minute of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations for the champions.
The 24-year-old made her presence felt right from the start of the campaign, making 11 carries for 76 metres and 14 tackles as England defeated Scotland 52-10 in their curtain-raiser.
She kept her place in the side despite Middleton ringing the changes for England’s visit to Italy, moving to lock and producing another blockbuster performance in the 67-3 thrashing.
But Aldcroft saved her best until last as she racked up another 14 carries and 15 tackles in the final against France, earning the Player of the Match award as a result.
And she could have more silverware coming her way after being nominated for the Women’s Six Nations Player of the Championship for her consistent displays across the tournament.
Caroline Boujard (France)
Les Bleues might have once again missed out on the title to England, but Annick Hayraud will take plenty of encouragement from the performances of several of her players as they prepare to greet the Red Roses in France for Friday’s friendly.
Electrifying winger Caroline Boujard was the star of the French show, finishing the 2021 Women’s Six Nations as the top try scorer with five scores from just three games.
The France winger made history in her side’s opening game with a blistering 14-minute hat-trick as Les Bleues romped to a 53-0 victory over Wales at the Stade de la Rabine.
Her treble was the joint fastest in Women’s Six Nations history, matching Kat Merchant’s own quickfire hat-trick for England against Scotland in 2009.
But that was just the start of a memorable tournament for Player of the Championship nominee Boujard, who also scored a double against Ireland at Energia Park.
Poppy Cleall (England)
Considered by many - including the England head coach - to be one of the best players in the world, Poppy Cleall was an unstoppable force during the 2021 Championship.
The No.8 made 19 carries for 107 metres and scored a try in England’s victory over Scotland to be named Player of the Match, with Middleton describing her display as “sensational”.
A 27-minute cameo off the bench against Italy saw her manage another 10 carries for 61 metres before she capped off an impressive Championship with the match-winning try in the final.
Her quick tap penalty caught France off guard before she offloaded brilliantly and picked up the ball from the next breakdown to barge over the whitewash for the crucial score.
Keeping England legend Sarah Hunter out of the team is no mean feat, but Cleall’s performances have done just that - and earned her a Player of the Championship nomination.
The best of the rest
France full-back Emilie Boulard certainly deserves a nod for her Women’s Six Nations debut, with the previously uncapped youngster playing all three games and scoring two tries.
Ireland will also be delighted with their Championship display as Adam Griggs’ side secured two wins from three to finish in third place, beating Italy in their Finals Day play-off.
Among those to shine for Ireland was Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, the sevens superstar who scored a brace against the Azzurre on her first start for her country.
Beibhinn Parsons was also excellent in her third Championship, scoring a double of her own against Wales in Round 2, while skipper Ciara Griffin and Dorothy Wall were both influential.
For Scotland, Helen Nelson was named Player of the Match as they avoided the Wooden Spoon with victory against Wales, and the fly-half was in good form throughout the tournament.
Other honourable mentions also go to experienced Italian scrum-half Sara Barattin and Wales skipper Siwan Lillicrap, with the latter one of the few positives for Warren Abrahams.