Simon Middleton has announced his squad to face France in the first round of the 2020 Six Nations. Big prizes for anyone who guessed this choice correctly!
15 McKenna 28 caps
14 Dow 9 caps
13 Scarratt 85 caps
12 Harrison 20 caps
11 Breach 10 caps
10 Daley-Mclean 110 caps
9 Hunt 50 caps
1 Botterman 17 caps
2 Cokayne 46 caps
3 Brown 12 caps
4 Cleall P 36 caps
5 Aldcroft 16 caps
6 Beckett 12 caps
7 Fleetwood 72 caps
8 Hunter 119 caps
16 Davies 22 caps
17 Cornborough 49 caps
18 Bern 31 caps
19 Millar-Mills 51 caps
20 Harper debut
21 Riley 34 caps
22 Reed 53 caps
23 Scott E 35 caps
Kerr non-playing reserve 22 caps
Some of these selections were forced on the management by injury, but the compelling ones are in the front row where the expected duo of Vickii Cornborough and Sarah Bern will have to wait their turn. Cornborough has only recently returned to action. As expected, Poppy Cleall returns to the second row in the absence of both Abbie Scott and Cath O’Donnell. There is strength, skill and pace combined in the back row, despite the sad loss of Marlie Packer to injury.
Out behind, Mo Hunt continues to take precedence over Leanne Riley, while the presence of three scrum-halves in the nominated 6 Nations squad means that Claudia Macdonald remains a spectator. The only doubts in the back three concerned fitness. It has left Abby Dow on the right flank and Jess Breach on the left to threaten the wide defences. They are both in fine fettle at the moment.
As in the autumn tests Simon Middleton has made use of a ‘non-playing reserve’, only this time the choice is a seasoned campaigner, Heather Kerr, not a young aspirant.
Harriet Millar-Mills makes a welcome recall to the ranks, and in all probability Vickii Cornborough will gain a well merited 50th cap. Much as we would love to see her appearing early on, the later she is needed, the better the story will be for the visitors. It would mean the set-scrum is holding up well; that will be a central issue to be decided on the field.
This selection will at least give the French camp pause for thought. You never assume you know how the opposition will look on the big day, but this Red Roses XV is different in several respects from the one on show in Exeter three months ago. and the English have a tiny advantage in having had the French squad disclosed to them days earlier.
When England finally manage to open out, stretch the French wide defence and score tries through the backs, we will know they are back in form. They haven’t managed it in either of the last two encounters – with the exception of that single heart-stopping moment in the closing minute at Exeter.
To call this fixture a battle royal scarcely does it justice. Who’s prepared to say: ‘May the best side win’?
The game will be in the calm hands of Aimee Barrett-Theron, who is well known to both sides.
The French will take great heart from their 7s sisters who beat the Olympic champions Australia to win the bronze medal in Hamilton New Zealand. But they have the memories of four recent losses to England to trouble them. It’s 22 months since they last prevailed, though there’s has been very little daylight between the two sides.
If they don’t succeed this time round, some serious questions will have to be asked in high quarters.
A reminder of the French line-up:
8 Ménager R.
23 Ménager M.
Referee : Aimee Barrett-Theron (South Africa)
In mid-January Annick Hayraud, the French manager, spoke of the new initiative they took in bringing a group of 34 players away for a week to Benidorm. Revealingly, she spoke of the huge lift it gave management and players in putting together a training programme and a preparation for the 6N, because: ‘We didn’t have them for a long period.’
Therein lies the crux of the French dilemma. Their ambitions are the highest: first defeat the English, then move on to conquer the world. But – and it’s a huge but – the players all remain on a (50%) part-time contract with the FFR. So the staff must feel they are always playing catch-up with the English. The philosophy is that a full-time contract runs contrary to the best interests of the players.
In the long term, that means a player’s whole life; there may be very good reasons for approving this policy. In the short term it limits the boundaries of the players’ abilities – a half-way house between pure amateurism and full professionalism.
It’s too early to cast a verdict on the English approach. But viewing the Red Roses squad in action at Lensbury for their last run-through on English soil, you got the strong impression that they were enjoying life to the full. Only the odd injury or niggle could spoil the sense of hard work allied to fun. Their timetable fills up with plenty of other rugby-linked activities, not least in ambassadorial roles. And several players can continue their pre-professional pursuits.
But the way that session took place revealed the costs of the operation. The setting was the elegant grounds of The Lensbury by the Thames. A full cast of support staff was in attendance. Apart from the three coaches, Simon Middleton, Scott Bemand and Richard Blaze, there were medics and physios, camera operators, technical analysts and others whose roles were too complex for the uninitiated to understand. Every practice facility was there for the players to use. Even the humble tackle-bag was there by the dozen, so the line-out practice could operate with three groups at a time. Tripods filmed and photographed every blade of grass.
When we think of the early days of organised women’s rugby, as movingly recalled by Gill Burns and others recently, we can see the huge progress that has occurred over the 34 years since an international was first staged in England.
On the surface the French and English approaches seem so similar; below the water-line they are tellingly different.