What the Red Roses’ Six Nations squad tells us

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England Women return to action for the first time since their agonising World Cup final defeat to New Zealand.

Simon Middleton will step down as head coach, but he has named his 43-woman squad for the tournament which begins later this month, giving us a few clues as to how they might set up. 

England are an unknown quantity…and it’s exciting

With key absentees in the front row and experienced personnel missing across the entire squad, England are a very different entity to the one we have seen in recent seasons. There is the high-profile absence of Zoe Harrison, who is out with an ACL injury, while the prop department is also looking rather light, with Laura Keates (ACL), Vickii Cornborough (personal reasons) and Hannah Botterman (ankle) all unavailable for selection. Such high-profile omissions are countered by the highly anticipated return of Natasha Hunt, the experienced sniping scrum-half who controversially missed out on World Cup selection. Hunt’s inclusion will almost certainly inject a tempo that England have been guilty of lacking in the past. 

The Red Roses’ reliance on their marauding maul attracted significant criticism during the World Cup. Those such as the uncapped May Campbell, a pocket rocket of a hooker who has starred all season for Saracens, could see England deviate from their straitjacketed game plan. The turnaround to the 2025 World Cup is frighteningly short and with the Rugby Football Union still hunting Simon Middleton’s successor, a lot could change over the next two years. There is a sense, though, that we have already been given a glimpse of who could be in the mix for what promises to be a record-breaking tournament. 

Aitchison poised to step up at fly-half

Holly Aitchison has filled in at fly-half in the past Credit: Getty Images/Phil Walter

With Harrison out all eyes will turn to her club teammate Holly Aitchison, who is no stranger to filling in at 10. The former sevens specialist has predominantly served as an understudy to Emily Scarratt at centre at England level, but was sublime when she stepped up at fly-half in last year’s Premier 15s final, helping to steer Saracens to a third league title. 

Middleton conceded that it had always been the plan to develop the 25-year-old as a viable option at fly-half and mooted the idea with Aitchison in New Zealand during last year’s World Cup. This is an area where the Red Roses have historically lacked depth, but the possibilities are intriguing. Bristol’s Amber Reed, who has had a torrid time with injury in recent years, is likely to be a secondary option.

England look to the future with young talent

The start of a new World Cup cycle often heralds new opportunities for fresh faces and such is the case with Middleton’s final Six Nations squad, with nine uncapped players in the mix. Among those to be called up are Nancy McGillivray and Lizzy Duffy, two polished gems from England’s under-20s system. 

That he has such talent at his disposal is a testament to the colossal strides the women’s game has made over the past decade – to the point the youth coming through the system look unrecognisable to those when Middleton took over at England women’s coach in 2015. “The players look far more advanced than players from five years ago,” said Middleton, “which you’d expect with the amount of detail going into nutrition, strength and conditioning and psychological support.”

Louis Deacon in the mix to be Middleton’s successor

Three months on from having their World Cup dream extinguished, England find themselves in a peculiar position heading into this year’s Six Nations. A fourth straight title should be achievable given their strength and depth, but the lack of certainty around the Red Roses’ coaching situation could prove disruptive. While he talked up the influence that Louis Deacon, England’s forwards coach, has had on his squad selection, Middleton would not be drawn on whether the former Leicester Tigers lock was head coach material. 

“He may be the best person, but he may not,” he said. “There could be some really established high profile coaches who go for it. “Deacs is a fantastic coach but he’s young in his coaching age. It’s really important that you let people develop their craft and don’t overload them with other aspects of the job.” By the end of the championship, we might be closer to finding out.  

Source: telegraph.co.uk