The autumn international programme for the Red Roses – now supported by a new sponsor, Quilter – offers a better balance than last year’s sequence of three tests against a single opponent, Canada.
It was a disappointment that the Maple Leafs couldn’t assemble their strongest squad, but there had been an exhausting World Cup three months earlier and bodies were tired. This year’s elite squad looks very different. All the familiar names are back, to provide the Red Roses with a challenge that could match the intensity of their encounter in Christchurch in June 2017(27-20).
The other two contests are equally promising: the USA and Ireland complete a trio of nations hoping to establish a position from which to reach the summit of the 2021 World Cup.
It will be fascinating to see what progress the new American Head Coach, Rob Cain, has managed to make in the short period of his reign. Rugby USA had no doubts about his credentials: British rugby fans will know him primarily as the power-house behind Saracens’ rise to glory last season. In the States he has already made a huge impression, travelling widely to familiarise himself with playing standards and make himself known to players and staff alike.
We have only to think of the problems the Eagles set England in the second half of their pool match in Dublin (47-26) to know American women’s rugby needs only a few tweaks to restore it to the very top of world standings, such as it enjoyed in the 1990s (World Cup winners 1991). They have the numbers, the enthusiasm and the athletes to regain their earlier prominence. The Women’s Premier League (WPL) is the stepping-stone to national honours.
The Americans suffer the same problem as their Canadian neighbours: how to gather the nation’s best players for sufficiently long in one place to build a true singleness of purpose. Canada have established a national centre in British Columbia. Back in July Cain called a squad of 62 together for a training camp at the USA Olympic centre in Chula Vista California. He means business.
The US autumn programme reflects their ambitions: they take on the Black Ferns in Chicago in early November before crossing the pond to play England at Cain’s old stamping ground, Allianz Park, just six days later. They finish their Old World tour with a game against England’s remaining opponents, Ireland, in Dublin.
Ireland provided the saddest story of the last World Cup. Having thrown body and soul into an island-wide promotional campaign before the great event, the Girls in Green failed to live up to their own expectations, let alone their nation’s. several players announced their retirement – not surprising, since their average age was so high – and Tom Tierney, the Head Coach, resigned.
Adam Griggs, his New Zealand successor, did well to regather forces quickly enough to win at least two games in the 2018 6 Nations. By the time they met England at Coventry in the last round of the 6N, their old spirit was well in evidence. With more time, Griggs will hope to re-establish an Irish squad to match the Grand Slam winners of 2013. To set the ball rolling, he has announced a squad of 31 to face the USA and England, including no fewer than nine new faces.
And what of the English? The general mood will have lightened markedly with the announcement of contracts for 28 players (plus 7 ‘EPS Agreements’). It brings them back in line with their 7’s sisters; not before time, you might say. The competition for places in the 6N squad will be keener than ever. Hence the crucial importance of the selection of an Elite Squad for the Quilters. There are some 35 capped Roses still available after the culling of the 7s squad and the four retirements.
Simon Middleton may well repeat his experiment of last year and announce a large preliminary group from which the final Elite Squad will be chosen. This may prove to be the most crucial decision he has yet made – even more than his side for the 2017 World Cup final. The introduction of those 28 professional contracts will mean a huge shift in twenty-eight careers, involving major decisions for each of those players. He will want to avoid the unfortunate second thoughts that have waylaid the 7’s management.
A prime task of the Tyrrells Premier 15s League is to provide him with the evidence he seeks. Last season new names appeared on squad lists and very quickly on the score-sheets too. Jess Breach and Ellie Kildunne were hastily snatched away by the 7s selectors, having totalled a ridiculous 20 tries between them in ten tests. This year too, encouraging showings by the younger generation are adding to the competition. The U20s completed an unbeaten trio of successes on tour against Canada (twice) and the USA. Several of them have gone on to make their mark in the Tyrrells.
Familiar names like Vicky Fleetwood and Laura Keates will be hoping to get enough game-time under their belts to prove their readiness for more international action. Lydia Thompson’s return from 7s provides stern competition for Abby Dow’s right to the No 14 shirt. Harriet Millar-Mills is making the long haul back from injury; we must hope she’s in fine fettle come the New Year. And the many new caps last season, Kelly Smith, Charlotte Pearce, Zoe Harrison, Lagi Tuima, Caity Mattinson, Hannah Botterman and Jo and Shaunagh Brown, know the size of the task that faces them.
There has been one significant change in the management team: Matt Ferguson’s skills as a forwards coach were recognised by Northampton Saints who offered him a post he couldn’t refuse. He has been replaced by Richard Blaze, who has a wide base of experience to help reproduce Ferguson’s achievements with the Red Roses pack. No change in the other two positions: Simon Middleton still has Scott Bemand beside him as backs coach. No thought yet of introducing attack and defence coaches.
9 November England v USA Allianz Park 19.45
18 November England v Canada Castle Park Doncaster 14.00
24 November England v Ireland Twickenham 17.40
Once again, the RFU have added one venue outside London. Maybe one day, two out of three will be far from the Big Smoke. Now they should employ their most creative minds to ensure much larger attendances at the two London fixtures. Last season’s record gate for the Wales game at the Stoop was well below what Ireland and France have recently achieved.
Just for fun, here is an England XV to take on all-comers in November:
15 Emily Scott
14 Lydia Thompson
13 Amber Reed
12 Rachael Burford
11 Amy Wilson Hardy
10 Katy Daley-Mclean
9 Leanne Riley
1 Vickii Cornborough
2 Amy Cokayne
3 Sarah Bern
4 Tamara Taylor
5 Abbie Scott
6 Poppy Cleall
7 Marlie Packer
8 Sarah Hunter (C)
The ifs and buts attached to this one-eyed selection are too numerous to list.