Abby Dow scores four tries as Italy are thrashed by rampant Red Roses

England v Italy live: Score and latest updates from Women’s Six Nations - Reuters/Andrew Boyers
England v Italy live: Score and latest updates from Women’s Six Nations - Reuters/Andrew Boyers

By Fiona Tomas, at Franklin's Gardens

No Sarah Hunter? No problem. A week on from saying goodbye to their veteran captain, England kick-started a new era in their usual ruthless style.

This was more bona fide proof that the Red Roses have more depth than Mary Poppins’ magical handbag. They are without four tight-head props and four further loose-heads for most, if not all of this Six Nations campaign. Over a third of their matchday squad for this encounter were not even involved in last year’s World Cup in New Zealand.  And still, with Zoe Alcroft slotting seamlessly in at number-eight, they obliterated an error-strewn Italian outfit. Even with a raft of fresh faces, their raw power was still just as evident.

When Sarah Bern was not rampaging through Italy’s defence like a caffeinated great white shark or sneaking in the occasional try-scoring offload, she and her front-row colleagues were busy shoving Italy back at scrum time. When militant Marlie Packer, who is clearly relishing her role as England’s new captain, was not barking instructions at her personnel, she was in the thick of every tackle. She ended up making 20 carries in another dominant individual display.

But how refreshing it was that for once, England’s forwards did not steal the show. Of the 12 tries Simon Middleton’s side crafted in this giant killing, 10 were scored by backs. In a telling sign that this is a team in transition - and eager to diversify their attack and add it to their mauling-heavy game - this was the day that the back-three unit of Abby Dow, Jess Breach and Claudia Macdonald sparkled. All three had crossed by the 20-minute mark courtesy of Holly Aitchison’s fine play-making performance at fly-half.

Even when Macdonald limped off with a rather serious looking injury not long after the break, Emma Sing, still a relative newcomer in the Red Roses camp, stepped up to relieve Aitchison of her duties in front of the uprights. If there is one criticism of her game, Aitchison’s goal-kicking is her only work-on.

Claudia MacDonald leaves the field with an injury - Abby Dow scores four tries as Italy are thrashed by rampant Red Roses - Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Claudia MacDonald leaves the field with an injury - Abby Dow scores four tries as Italy are thrashed by rampant Red Roses - Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

“She was absolutely outstanding today,” Simon Middleton, the England head coach, said of the Saracen. “That was one of her best, most balanced performances. She is very different from the tens we’ve had. She’s such a quiet, unassuming person off the field but she gets on it and she really bosses the team around and drives the team around the field. That’s what you want.”

Aitchison stamped her control on the game from the off. Her perfectly weighted cross-field kick towards Breach, who leapt off the touchline before feeding Dow inside her for England’s second, set the tone for the afternoon as England’s backs busied themselves in every area of the park. Tatiana Heard would later barge over to join the fun, while Lagi Tuima’s own dinking chip towards Breach for her hat-trick was a thing of beauty.

Even Bern, who was the player of the match despite not managing to join in on the try-fest, got the memo. The prop started hanging out on the wing, having spent most of the game scything through Italy’s forlorn defence and her unconventional hovering in the wide channels prompted Middleton to christen the Bristol Bears forward as “our fourth back three player.”

Sarah Burn breaks beyond Aura Muzzo - Abby Dow scores four tries as Italy are thrashed by rampant Red Roses - Getty Images/Dan Mullan
Sarah Burn breaks beyond Aura Muzzo - Abby Dow scores four tries as Italy are thrashed by rampant Red Roses - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

For England, what constitutes a perfect performance? Is it scoring five tries before half-time and nabbing the bonus point? Or is it simply thrashing their Six Nations rivals, adding to the increasing uncompetitiveness of the Women’s Six Nations? This was the second lop-sided scoreline of the weekend after 14-woman France battered Ireland 55-3 in Cork on Saturday. You have to wonder whether further thrashings risk stunting the competition’s growth - a thought that Packer would not dare entertain.

“No, I don’t think so,” she protested, when the question was put to her. “There’s such a buzz around the Six Nations. I don’t think that at all. If anything, it will make [other] unions realise they need to up their game so we can compete with the best. We can only play what’s in front of us. We keep driving our standards and this week we’ll look at ourselves and look at what we did wrong and what we can do better against Wales. But the Six Nations is such an exciting tournament to be a part of and I know all the girls relish it.”

At least Wales might bite England a bit in a fortnight’s time in Cardiff. Ioan Cuningham’s side have enjoyed the perfect start to their campaign and have been busy reaping the fruits of professionalism for over a year now. Middleton warned it would be “tougher” but given his side have shipped 126 points in their opening two matches, England fans will no doubt expect another landslide victory.

England run in 12 tries against Italy - as it happened

04:56 PM

Player of the match Sarah Bern speaks to the BBC

On appearing in the wide channels throughout the match...

"It's not where you usually put your tighthead! But I love ball carrying and I had the chances to be out in the wide areas."

On England's approach to the match...

"We want to play attacking, exciting rugby and get the fans on their feet."

On facing Wales in Cardiff next...

"They've been impressive so far, we need to get our set-pieces sorted and I think we'll be alright."

04:51 PM

FULL-TIME: England 68-5 Italy

England roll on - they were too good for Italy, who for all their effort and  flashes of brilliance just were not even close to being on the hosts' level.

04:49 PM


England 68-5 Italy (Packer)

England are relentless, they're like Duracell bunnies - they keep on going and going. The captain goes over from close range for her second score of the afternoon. Sing misses the conversion. There's a minute left - can the hosts add another?

04:43 PM


England 63-5 Italy (Dow) 

This is getting a tad unfair now as England's greater fitness, born of professionalism, is really telling now. They take a quick line-out Sing makes yard of the right, before the ball is moved down the line to Dow on the left and she goes over for her fourth try and the hosts' 11th.

04:40 PM


England 58-5 Italy (Packer) 

A try for the new captain - Italy are absolutely blowing out there, the difference in levels of fitness is telling so much now. From a line-out England do what they do better than anyone in the world: create a driving maul and then barge over from close range. Packer is the player who touched the ball down. Sing makes no mistake with the conversion.

04:34 PM

64 mins: England 51-5 Italy

Italy look tired and these last 15 minutes or so will simply be about keeping the scoreline down.

04:33 PM


England 51-5 Italy (Breach)

That's try No.9 for the hosts who look as hungry as ever. England turn the ball over inside the Italy 22, having won possession they ball is flung to the right flank and Breach scores her hat-trick in the corner. Sing misses the extras.

04:27 PM

Here's Dow's second try

04:25 PM


England 46-5 Italy (Dow)

A hat-trick for Dow. It comes from England turning over Italy ball in their own half, the ball is moved to the left flank and the speedster charges down the wing to score her third. Sing, this time, just misses the kick.

04:22 PM


England 41-5 Italy (Dow)

From Italy attacking in the England half to a Dow try in four phases. It starts with Breach breaking down the right, before England bash a hole in the midfield through Cath O'Donnell. The ball is shipped down the line to Dow on the left flank and she makes no mistake charging over from 25 yards.

Sing is England's third kicker of the match and she slots the ball between the uprights with ease.

04:16 PM

48 mins: England 34-5 Italy

The good news is that Claudia MacDonald is up, the bad news is that she is forced off the pitch. It looks as though it's an ankle injury. She's replaced by Sing.

From Fiona Tomas at Franklin's Gardens...

That doesn't look great for Claudia Macdonald, who looked in a lot of pain there. She was a bit teary as she traipsed off the pitch. Hopefully it isn't as bad as it looks.

04:14 PM

48 mins: England 34-5 Italy

A break in play as MacDonald is down and being seen to by medical staff - hope she's OK.

That came from another Italy break and another failed chance to capitalise on the opportunity to add to the scoreboard.

04:12 PM


England 34-5 Italy (Heard)

It's her second try in England colours. They are being made to work for it - it's not coming off second or third phase - but England move the ball into midfield and Heard charges through a missed tackle before touching down under the posts. This time the extras are added, though not via the boot of Aitchison, rather the boot of Tuima. Bit harsh, that. If I was the No. 10 I'd have insisted I take that kick in front of the posts - the perfect way to get your kicking confidence back.

04:07 PM

44 mins: England 27-5 Italy

MacDonald is having a great game, she's charging down the left flank before chipping ahead - the ball is over the whitewash and the wing reaches it before her Italian rivals. But she knocks-on and Italy breathe a sigh of relief.

04:05 PM

42 mins: England 27-5 Italy

Italy did the hard part - break the England line through through Franco. But the backrower moves away from the Italy support and the visitors ultimately lose the ball, gifting possession back to England.

It was the same story in the opening 40 minutes - good work quickly undone by an error.

04:01 PM

40 mins: England 27-5 Italy

They're back under way in Northampton - how many more points can England pile on?

03:55 PM

Fiona Tomas' half-time verdict

As expected, a dominant first-half from the Red Roses, shipping only the five tries past Italy. It already looks like we could be heading for another lop-sided scoreline, which the Women's Six Nations doesn't need any more of.

England thrashed Italy 74-0 in last year's championship and we could be in for a similar story this time round. You have to wonder...had England had more challenging Six Nations encounters last year, would they have won the World Cup? Probably.

Aitchison hasn't been brilliant from the tee but she's having another positive game at No 10 - her kicking from hand has been particularly impressive. She's really growing into that leadership role and her distribution is causing Italy all sorts of problems. Bar their immediate response from Breach's opener, the visitors haven't really offered much in attack.

03:49 PM

HALF-TIME: England 27-5 Italy

Great half for the hosts who were helped by some Italian errors. England are dominant at the breakdown and scrum and everything has followed from that. If there is one black mark it's that Aitchson's kicking from the tee has been poor - albeit in blustery conditions. But he kicking from hand has been great.

03:47 PM


England 27-5 Italy (Breach)

A great, confident finish from Breach as the hosts finish the half well on top. That all came from an Italy kick and the visitors will want this half over with now. Aitchison again misses the extras and if there's one worry for the Red Roses it's that they haven't got more points on the board.

03:43 PM

Here's MacDonald's first try

03:42 PM

35 mins: England 22-5 Italy

As Brian Moore said on BBC comms about Sarah Bern in that try: 'it's one thing to stand in the outside channel, it's another to know what to do when you are there!' The prop was brilliant in setting up MacDonald's score.

03:40 PM


England 22-5 Italy (MacDonald)

More quick ball at the breakdown allows the hosts to show off more great hands. The ball is moved down the line and it ends up with Sarah Bern. The prop shows all the nous and hands of an outside centre as she runs a great line before passing to MacDonald and the wing scores her second in the left corner. Aitchison misses the conversion from the touchline.

03:37 PM

32 mins: England 17-5 Italy

Italy do well at the scrum and kick for touch. They then do well at the line-out but that is ruined by a knock-on and it's England's scrum. That sort of sums up the visitors - they do things well only to spoil it with an error.

03:35 PM

30 mins: England 17-5 Italy

Italy's defence is being made to work hard here but they are putting, to use a well-worn phrase, a shift in here and keeping their side in the match.

03:34 PM

28 mins: England 17-5 Italy

Aldcroft drives over the gainline and England move the ball down the line, a long pass from MacDonald allows Dow to go over in the corner unopposed. BUT there's clearly an obstruction in the midfield - Cokayne clearly preventing Capomaggi from making a tackle - and after much toing and froing (Aitchison actually had a go at the conversion) the score is ruled out.

03:29 PM

25 mins: England 17-5 Italy

England with plenty of possession but as they move the ball through the hands it's all a bit too lateral.

03:26 PM

Fiona Tomas at Franklin's Gardens

England are destroying Italy at the scrum - they shoved them back five metres there in the build up to Claudia Macdonald's try. Each of the Red Roses' back three have gone over and we haven't even played 20 minutes yet.

It's quite cosy in the Franklin's Garden media gantry and I'm practically sitting on top of the Italian coaching team. Giovanni Rainieri, Italy's new coach, has only just sat down after shouting into his microphone for the first quarter of an hour. He's pleased with what he's seen so far and rightly so. Italy have produced a flurry of nice offloads going forward that have caught England out. It's whether they can keep this intensity up for 80 mins.

03:23 PM

22 mins: England 17-5 Italy

England are on top is every facet of the game - Aitchison puts in a lovely kick over the top that finds the corner and Italy are, once again, pegged back in their half.

03:21 PM

Here's how England opened the scoring

03:20 PM


England 17-5 Italy (MacDonald)

Again England put on a huge push at the scrum, that allows front-foot ball for the backs who move it down the line to the wing MacDonald. She spots a gap, pings her ears back and charges through it and from there there's no stopping her as she scores near the corner after a 40-yard sprint. Aitchison misses the conversion but already, you suspect, it won't matter.

03:17 PM

14 mins: England 12-5 Italy

The hosts are dominating the breakdown and the scrum to such an extent it's hard to see how England don't put on a lot of points here.

03:14 PM

13 mins: England 12-5 Italy

Italy's problem is that they're unable to slow England ball down - the ruck speed is about three seconds and trying to defend that is always going to be a problem.

03:13 PM

Fiona Tomas at Franklin's Gardens

What an electric start to this game. That England try came from Veronica Madia's dropped ball inside her own 22 - Italy will need to avoid those sorts of handling errors against this clinical Red Roses side. But fair play to them, what a response down the other end. England looked a bit shaky defensively there - this isn't a team who usually concedes tries though lineout mauls, but order is soon restored. That was a class take from Jess Breach on the touchline to intuitively feed Abby Dow.

03:11 PM


England 12-5 Italy (Dow)

From an England line-out Aitchison puts in a fine, inch-perfect crossfield kick. Breach collects well before playing a lovely inside pass to Dow who goes over in the corner. Three tries in the first eight minutes...Aitchison misses the conversion.

03:08 PM


England 7-5 Italy (Tounesi)

Well, well, well...anyone worried that early England try meant it was a case of game over should take a long, hard look in the mirror. From the restart England are penalised for crossing. Italy kick for the corner and from the resulting line-out create a rolling maul that ultimately ends with Tounesi going over the whitewash. The conversion, from an acute angle and in blustery conditions, is missed, but that's a fine, character-building score.

03:06 PM


England 7-0 Italy (Breach)

The hosts are patient from the attacking scrum, working through the phases and moving the ball from one flank to the other. England recycle the ball well and ultimately work the overlap on the left allowing Breach to cross over unopposed. The extras are added and this is just the start the Red Roses wanted, and Italy hoped to avoid.

03:01 PM

2 mins: England 0-0 Italy

Early knock-on from the visitors - as they try to run the ball from deep and England have a scrum in the Italy 22.

This is a gift so early on for the hosts...

03:00 PM

1 min: England 0-0 Italy

They're under way in Northampton - the hosts are expected to win but how much will Italy make them fight for the W? We're about to find out.

02:57 PM

Fiona Tomas at Franklin's Gardens

Both teams have just finished their warm-ups and looking at the size of Italy's players, you fear for them. Some of them look half the size of England's Red Roses - it's clear they haven't been professional for that long.

It's worth remembering the Italian union only rolled out proper contracts for its women's team in the build up to last year's World Cup and it could show today.

I've also just spotted Maud Muir, the England prop, in the crowd. The Gloucester-Hartpury forward, who won't feature at all this Six Nations after breaking her hand in training a fortnight ago, is holding up a sign which reads, 'I'm Sadia's biggest fan!' in hommage to Sadia Kabeya, her close friend who starts today at blindside flanker.

02:56 PM

The two teams are out on the pitch and it's national anthem time

I'm a big fan of the operatic Italian one - rousing, emotional, delightful.

02:54 PM

New England captain Marlie Packer speaks to BBC Sport

"You can't knock off with Italy...You can do your analysis then turn up on the day and they play a completely different game plan."

02:46 PM

Simon Middleton on England's injury woes

"It's always tricky, I think it's more anxious for the girls as they want to work on combinations...but today is a chance to find out about more players."

02:43 PM

Italy's new coach Giovanni Raineri... under no illusions as the task facing his team today.

"For us it will be another big challenge."

But they are fifth in the world rankings, and are no slouches.

02:33 PM

Everyone loves a comeback story

Someone who's beats the fickle hand of bad fate and comes out of adversity on the other side.

That certainly applies to Claudia MacDonald. The England wing scored a brace against Scotland last week, but a year ago the idea she would be a vital player for the Red Roses now might well have been laughed at.

READ: Claudia MacDonald interview: Neck injury almost ended my career but now I’m braver than ever

A year ago Claudia MacDonald was preparing for a life away from rugby - now she's a key player for the Red Roses - AFP/Paul Ellis
A year ago Claudia MacDonald was preparing for a life away from rugby - now she's a key player for the Red Roses - AFP/Paul Ellis

02:12 PM

Here are the two XVs

ENGLAND XV TO FACE ITALY: Dow; Breach, Tuima, Heard, MacDonald; Aitchison, L Packer; Carson, Cokayne, Bern, O'Donnell, Burns, Kabeya, Packer (capt), Aldcroft.

Replacements: Davies, Crake, Clifford, Beckett, Robinson, Wyrwas, McKenna, Sing.

ITALY XV TO FACE ENGLAND: Ostuni Minuzzi; Muzzo, Sillari, Rigoni, Stefan; Madia, Barattin; Maris, Vecchini, Gai, Tounesi, Duca, Sgorbini, Franco, Giordano (capt).

Replacements: Stecca, Cassaghi, Seye, Fedrighi, Locatelli, Stevanin, Busato, Capomaggi.

02:09 PM

England have arrived

Phew, not much of a match if they hadn't...

11:11 AM

England's new era under Marlie Packer gets under way with visit of Italy

England at home to Italy a week after they got their Six Nations campaign off to a good start with a thumping of Scotland should mean only one thing: another easy victory, no?

On the face of it yes. They thrashed the Italians in Parma 74-0 last year and, defeat in the World Cup final apart, are still the team to beat in world rugby. But here's an argument as to why the hosts may not have things all their own way today at Franklin's Gardens.

Injuries to key players like Emily Scarratt and Zoe Harrison, as well as Abbie Ward’s pregnancy, have left the Red Roses squad depleted for this Six Nations. Amber Reed and Poppy Cleall have also been ruled out of this weekend’s match having suffered knee injuries against Scotland. They are also without Sarah Hunter, their talismanic skipper having bowed out after last week's win in Newcastle.

Add to that the fact that the Azzurri are an ever-improving side, reached the World Cup last-eight, made France fight to the death in their 22-12 defeat the first round of fixtures, and possess a dangerous back-three capable of tries from anywhere and it's getting easier to see why a win for the Red Roses cannot be taken for granted.

England are, however, the best team in the world for a reason and the strength in depth they possess has been illustrated by the addition of players such as Bristol Bears' Delaney Burns, who is named in the starting lock pairing alongside Cath O'Donnell. Marlie Packer captains the side with Zoe Aldcroft named vice-captain at No.8. Sadia Kabeya packs down on the blind side to complete the powerful-looking back row.

New skipper Packer said: "I want to make sure the girls are in the best place they can be to perform on the pitch, I’m driving across the messages and the game plan whilst also researching the new cappers coming into the squad. The player pool we have is amazing which means we can call on players bringing them into training knowing they will raise their game."

Stay here for all the pre-match build up and action, with play set to get under way at 3pm.