Simon Middleton has sprung a few surprises in his squad to compete in the 2020 version of the Six Nations:
Sarah Hunter (Loughborough Lightning, 119 caps, captain)
Zoe Aldcroft (Gloucester-Hartpury, 16 caps)
Sarah Beckett (Harlequins, 13 caps)
Sarah Bern (Bristol Bears, 31 caps)
Hannah Botterman (Saracens, 17 caps)
Jess Breach (Harlequins, 10 caps)
Shaunagh Brown (Harlequins, 12 caps)
Rowena Burnfield (Richmond, 49 caps)
Bryony Cleall (Saracens, 1 cap)
Poppy Cleall (Saracens, 36 caps)
Amy Cokayne (Harlequins/RAF, 46 caps)
Vickii Cornborough (Harlequins, 49 caps)
Lark Davies (Loughborough Lightning, 22 caps)
Katy Daley-Mclean (Loughborough Lightning, 110 caps)
Abby Dow (Wasps, 9 caps)
Vicky Fleetwood (Saracens. 72 caps)
Amelia Harper (Loughborough Lightning, uncapped)
Zoe Harrison (Saracens, 20 caps)
Natasha Hunt (Gloucester-Hartpury, 50 caps)
Heather Kerr (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 22 caps)
Claudia Macdonald (Wasps, 8 caps)
Sarah McKenna (Saracens, 28 caps)
Harriet Millar-Mills (Wasps, caps)
Amber Reed (Bristol Bears, 51 caps)
Leanne Riley (Harlequins, 34 caps)
Emily Scarratt (Loughborough Lightning, 85 caps)
Abbie Scott (Harlequins, 42 caps)
Emily Scott (Harlequins, 35 caps)
Kelly Smith (Gloucester-Hartpury, 13 caps)
Morwenna Talling (Loughborough Lightning, uncapped)
Lydia Thompson (Worcester Warriors, 45 caps)
Millie Wood (Gloucester-Hartpury, 8 caps)
This is a fascinating selection on several counts:
First, the larger-than-usual number of 32 allows for more flexibility; fewer players will need to show their versatility.
Second, the number of non-availabilities has reduced remarkably. I have kept a ‘Rosewatch’ at the end of my reports ever since Round 5 of the Tyrrells campaign. The total of missing Red Roses has never fallen below eight, but now only the two long-term injuries, Cath O’Donnell and Lagi Tuima, plus the unfortunate Marlie Packer are missing. Packer was desperately unlucky to suffer a damaged ankle in the latest round.
Third, performances in the Tyrrells have had their reward. With so many contracted players already installed, it takes a considerable effort to impress the management. But three players already capped have got the nod, Harriet Millar-Mills, Rowena Burnfield and Millie Wood. Millar-Mills was out for nearly two years with multiple knee problems, but as soon as she returned she regained her high standards at No 8, helping to inject real impetus into Wasps’ advance. Burnfield will be delighted to have another chance to gain a deserved 50th cap after losing her EPS agreement at the start of the year. Hers is a special achievement. It’s no easy matter retaining high standards when your team is faring poorly week by week, but her commitment to the game whole-hearted. Millie Wood was in a similar position to Burnfield, but as part of an electric Gloucester-Hartpury back-line deserves her recall.
Fourth, two young players have managed to impress the management to find acceptance at the highest level: Amelia Harper and Morwenna Talling. Harper is the lesser surprise: she has figured prominently in the England Under 20 colours for two seasons, captaining them against the USA last July. There has been a crying need for back-up in the crucial position of open-side flanker for quite a while. A player like Claire Molloy of Ireland shows the influence it can have. Now that Packer is out of commission, Harper’s chance has come.
The second uncapped player is a much greater surprise. It is one thing to ask an 18-year-old back like Ellie Kildunne to step up to the big time without having made an appearance for the Under 20s; quite another to invite a 17-year-old, Morwenna Talling, to do so in the second row. She deserves huge congratulation. She was in the Talent Development Group (one stage younger), but made a big impression as soon as Lightning introduced her in Round 3 of the Tyrrells. No doubt Sarah Hunter’s presence has helped her call-up . No surprise either that she is another northern lass – like Abbie Scott, Cath O’Donnell and Zoe Aldcroft – to offer her services to the engine-room of the England pack.
Bryony Cleall may be a shade fortunate to retain her place. She has been out all season with a leg injury, but has found favour over Ellena Perry in the front row.
Among the senior players, Vickii Cornborough’s return is central to England’s prosperity. One of the few recurring weaknesses in their systems has been the set-scrum. On several occasions it has been forced into undignified retreat, but not when she was anchoring it in the No 1 shirt.
She joins Burnfield in hoping for a thoroughly deserved 50th cap.
It is a tribute to the overall strength of the Tyrrells set-up that all the clubs bar one, Firwood Waterloo, are represented in this selection.
Whether every player will get the nod over the course of the five matches is another matter. The very strongest brew the management can concoct will be needed in the cauldron of the Stade du Hameau next weekend.