Simon Middleton has England selection headache for Women’s Six Nations final

  • Captain Sarah Hunter made first appearance in over a year
  • Middleton: ‘We have players who are really explosive’

On an afternoon when a female jockey made history at Aintree, England moved a few more lengths clear in the two-horse race that is the Women’s Six Nations. The team in the white colours took a long time to get into their stride before beating Italy 67-3 in Parma and are on course to meet France on Saturday week in a play-off for the 2021 championship.

Not that England’s head coach, Simon Middleton, sees things as clear-cut, especially with France, a nation with particular problems in this pandemic, having to travel to Dublin this weekend to meet an Irish side that kicked off their campaign with a convincing 45-0 win in Wales on Saturday evening. “Ireland against France should be a great game as Ireland have a new-found confidence. You can’t bank on an England‑France meeting,” he said.

Nevertheless Middleton has assembled the strongest squad in the history of the women’s game, even if New Zealand will be anxious to prove otherwise when they host the World Cup next year. The scoreline at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in no way reflects how good Italy were, at least for an hour. But Middleton, who has rotated his squad for their two Pool A games, then introduced his replacements who all made an impact and the Italians found themselves submerged by a white tide with England scoring nine tries, all but the last converted by Emily Scarratt.

England sneaked a late win against the French thanks to Scarratt’s penalty at the death at Twickenham last November but France are the last side to have beaten Middleton’s team and that was three years ago in Grenoble. “We’ll look back at both games before naming a team for the final. I’ll probably just put 23 names in a hat,” joked Middleton who, from the outside at least, appears to have a nice problem in regards to deciding his lineup to face France or Ireland.

He will have some intriguing choices to make in the next 10 days. Sarah Hunter, for instance, came back for her first international in more than a year to lead the side in Parma. She was replaced 15 minutes after the break by Poppy Cleall, the player of the match against Scotland. Cleall made an instant impact, slipping a pass to Abby Dow for the wing’s second try, the most spectacular score of the afternoon.

Former Scotland scrum coach Massimo Cuttitta has died aged 54.

Cuttitta had been admitted to hospital in Rome with Covid-19, the Scottish Rugby Union said.

"Scottish Rugby is deeply saddened to hear the passing of our former Scotland scrum coach Massimo Cuttitta," the statement read. "Our thoughts are with his family and friends in rugby at this time."

The Italian rugby federation confirmed his death on Sunday evening.

Cuttitta played 70 times for Italy between 1990 and 2000 and captained the Azzurri on 22 occasions. He spent time playing for Harlequins and served as Scotland's scrum coach for six years from 2009. PA Media

Hunter had imposed herself on the game from the start but it would be impossible not to include Cleall in the starting lineup next week. One solution would be to use Hunter in her specialist No 8 role and Cleall at No 6, a position in which Alex Matthews caught the eye at the weekend.

Similarly Zoe Harrison will probably start at No 10 after looking so sharp as a replacement for Meg Jones on the hour but that would be hard on Helena Rowland who has scored tries in both her starts as Middleton searches for the long-term successor to Katy Daley-McLean.

The Breakdown: sign up and get our weekly rugby union email.

“It was very different with Katy. She was always the first receiver and both these players can now have that role. But it’s all about the speed of ball and Zoe was terrific and threw out some fantastic passes,” said Middleton, a hint that the Saracens player, left out of the starting lineup against Scotland, has been forgiven for breaking Covid protocols last month.

“There were some fantastic cameos. We have got a category of players who are really explosive. We are looking at them as we ultimately build a strategy to work towards the World Cup.”

England are hoping to organise a day’s training with the Welsh squad this week. Wales may not relish this too much after conceding 98 points and not getting on the scoreboard in their Pool B games. The campaign has been a real anti-climax for Warren Abraham’s team who look as if they will be meeting Scotland in a wooden-spoon decider on finals day on 24 April. Scotland meet Italy in Glasgow this weekend.


Ian Malin

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Women’s Six Nations: England, Ireland and Scotland win on finals day!
England defend their title after 10-6 defeat of France. Ireland beat Italy to third and Scotland hold off Wales.

Sarah Rendell

24, Apr, 2021 @6:05 PM

Article image
Italy 3-67 England: Women’s Six Nations 2021 – as it happened
England recovered from a slow start to run in nine tries and claim their place in the final play-off for the trophy

Sarah Rendell

10, Apr, 2021 @3:32 PM

Article image
England captain Sarah Hunter on bench for Women’s Six Nations final
England’s captain Sarah Hunter is set to win her 125th cap this weekend but it will be from off the bench

Ian Malin

22, Apr, 2021 @10:15 AM

Article image
Women’s Six Nations 2023: team-by-team guide
England, fired by a desire to atone for World Cup heartache, are again favourites but a new-look France will challenge them

Sarah Rendell

22, Mar, 2023 @12:12 PM

Article image
England emerge from tense finale to win unique Women’s Six Nations | Ian Malin
England edged a tight televised battle with France, while Ireland and Scotland drew positives from finals day

Ian Malin

25, Apr, 2021 @11:23 AM

Article image
The 2022 women’s Six Nations can be the start of something special | Ali Donnelly
England will be big favourites but the tournament can flourish in a separate window from the men’s competition

Ali Donnelly

24, Mar, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Rowland has big shoes to fill in England Women's Six Nations defence | Ian Malin
Loughborough Lightning No 10 steps into the role vacated by the former captain Katy Daley-McLean against Scotland

Ian Malin

02, Apr, 2021 @8:51 AM

Article image
England dropping of Sarah Hunter for France final shows ruthless intent
Decision to leave captain out of Women’s Six Nations final raised eyebrows as Simon Middleton demands intensity

Ian Malin

23, Apr, 2021 @11:20 AM

Article image
Women’s Six Nations final: Poppy Cleall powers England to title against France
Poppy Cleall’s first-half try proved the difference in a tense final as England edged it 10-6 to earn a third successive title

Ian Malin at the Twickenham Stoop

24, Apr, 2021 @2:58 PM

Article image
Abby Dow’s four tries help England thrash Italy in Six Nations mismatch
Italy struggled to contain England who now top the table after their 68-5 defeat of Italy

Sarah Rendell at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens

02, Apr, 2023 @4:21 PM