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Shaunagh Brown column: Women’s Six Nations’ new calendar brings growing interest

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Venue: Castle Park, Doncaster Date: Saturday, 3 April Kick-off: 15:00 BST
Coverage: Watch on BBC iPlayer; listen on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

In her first BBC Sport column of the 2021 Women’s Six Nations, England prop Shaunagh Brown talks about growing interest in the women’s game, why her team cannot go for a Grand Slam and the importance of jigsaws in team building.

It feels like interest in the Women’s Six Nations is growing this year because we are playing at a different time to the men.

We would normally play in February and March, but our tournament was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

England get started against Scotland on Saturday and I am really looking forward to it because it is almost an experimental phase for the women’s game.

I know we have been forced into it this time but there has been talk in the past about women having a separate Six Nations.

Talk to any rugby fan and if they have an interest in the men’s game, they will watch that first. There is only so much rugby you can watch.

During the usual Six Nations window, it is saturated and we do not give ourselves a chance so I would like to see the women’s tournament stay at this time of year. It feels like change is happening.

‘It is disappointing not to go for a third Grand Slam’

Jess Breach, Shaunagh Brown and Sarah Bern lift the Women's Six Nations trophy
England won a second successive Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam in 2020

As well as the move to April, the tournament is being played in a new format this year. Teams are split into two pools and we will play two group games then there will be a final round of fixtures to decide placings.

England won a second successive Grand Slam in 2020 and it is disappointing that we will not get to go for a third in a row.

But we can only do what we can do and we can only play what is in front of us. Our options are that we do not play or we play this new format and we are just grateful that we get to play other countries.

Like everyone over the past year, we have had a lot of our plans altered. As well as the new Women’s Six Nations set-up, our World Cup has been postponed by a year and will now take place in 2022.

We are now having more regular sports psychology sessions. A lot of it has been around learning fast and adapting to change.

It has been a theme in our camps, during the autumn internationals too – adapting and getting on with it. Not dwelling on what could have been.

It is appreciating that we are still getting to play but knowing that there are a lot of changes.

When the World Cup was postponed, there was a lull. We were in camp when we found out so we all had a moan to each other. It hurt us all the same.

We still had training together the next day and straight away our head coach Simon Middleton said it was all about the Six Nations.

It is a shame the World Cup has been postponed and that is what we were working towards but now it is about the Six Nations and focussing on the task here and now.

‘Jigsaws are important for team bonding’

A completed Disney jigsaw
Some England players have been working on a Disney jigsaw to pass the time in camp

Another thing we are adapting to is training in a coronavirus bubble. We stay in our hotel rooms unless we have a meeting or appointment and we are allowed to socialise at a distance outside for a certain amount of time each day.

We have come up with creative ways of entertaining ourselves. Wing Jess Breach and scrum-half Leanne Riley have been doing painting by numbers.

There is a balcony at our hotel we can go on and they were doing it out there so I decided that would be a good place to do my jigsaw too.

Once I started, people came along to join in and we had a creativity corner going. Simon Middleton walked along the balcony yesterday like, “What is going on here?” He did not know his rugby players were this soft deep down.

We are very organised with our jigsaw. You have ‘pickers’ and then you have ‘placers’.

The pickers will get the edges and the placers will put them together. Then you have a picker looking for certain colour schemes.

Two pickers and two placers are ideal so I have fly-half Meg Jones as my picker and back Claudia MacDonald and flanker Harriet Millar-Mills have been involved too.

It turns out the jigsaw is a very important team-bonding exercise.

Shaunagh Brown was speaking to BBC Sport’s Becky Grey.

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