England have named nine uncapped players and recalled the experienced Natasha “Mo” Hunt to their reshuffled squad for the forthcoming Women’s Six Nations. Injuries and unavailability have ruled out several members of last year’s World Cup squad, forcing the Red Roses head coach, Simon Middleton, to cast his selectorial net slightly wider.
The 33-year-old Hunt, who missed the World Cup, has been the form scrum-half in this season’s Premier 15s and is now back involved alongside Sarah Beckett, Amber Reed and Poppy Cleall. A serious knee injury has ruled out the fly-half Zoe Harrison, however, while the centre Emily Scarratt is out with neck and ankle problems and the experienced lock Abbie Ward is pregnant.
Among the promising squad newcomers called up to fill the gaps are the 20-year-old Exeter centre Nancy McGillivray and the Saracens hooker May Campbell but plenty of familiar faces remain, with Sarah Hunter and Marlie Packer named as co-captains for a campaign that kicks off against Scotland in Newcastle on 25 March. Scarratt and Ward are also set to be involved in a non-playing capacity, assisting with defence and the lineout respectively, to encourage their development as potential future high-level coaches.
In the absence of Harrison and Helena Rowland, who will not be fit until the later stages of the competition, Saracens’ Holly Aitchison is poised to wear the No 10 jersey in the Red Roses’ final campaign with Middleton in charge. The Rugby Football Union has not yet confirmed his successor, with his assistant, Louis Deacon, the only member of the current management team staying on.
Speculation that Deacon will automatically be promoted to the top job, however, appears premature, with Middleton reiterating that the RFU’s priority has be to find the best available candidate, male or female. “It has to be the right person, whatever that looks like,” said Middleton. “I’d imagine they’ve got a list of people they’re looking to and I’m sure they’re looking externally as well. You don’t want to miss anything.
“A lot of it will depend on who else is in the frame. Louis may be the best person but he may not. There could be some really established high-profile coaches who go for it. We’ll have to see. Deacs is a fantastic coach but he’s young in his coaching age. It’s really important you let people develop their craft and don’t overload them with other aspects of the job.”
England have been beaten finalists at the last two World Cups but know they cannot keep dwelling on the disappointment of their agonising defeat to New Zealand at Eden Park in November. With or without a new head coach in place, they are already looking towards the next World Cup in 2025 which they are due to host. The RFU is also hoping this year’s Six Nations tournament will continue to elevate the profile of the women’s game. Thirty-five thousand tickets have so far been sold for the Red Roses’ final fixture against France at Twickenham on 29 April.