According to the original timescale England contracts are due for review next August. They become just another issue thrown into doubt by the current plague. For every Red Rose that review is of the first importance. It takes us right up to the World Cup (RWC) thirteen months beyond.
Here’s a reminder of the 28 contracted players involved:
Zoe Aldcroft (Gloucester-Hartpury) 2016
Sarah Beckett (Harlequins) 2018
Sarah Bern (Bristol Bears) 2016
Hannah Botterman (Saracens) 2017
Jess Breach (Harlequins) 2017
Shaunagh Brown (Harlequins) 2017
Bryony Cleall (Saracens) 2019
Poppy Cleall (Saracens) 2016
Amy Cokayne (Harlequins/RAF) 2015
Vickii Cornborough (Harlequins) 2015
Katy Daley-Mclean (Loughborough Lightning) 2007
Lark Davies (Loughborough Lightning) 2018
Vicky Fleetwood (Saracens) 2011
Zoe Harrison (Saracens) 2017
Mo Hunt (Gloucester-Hartpury) 2011
Sarah Hunter (Loughborough Lightning) 2007
Claudia Macdonald (Wasps) 2018
Sarah McKenna (Saracens) 2011
Cath O’Donnell (Loughborough Lightning) 2017
Marlie Packer (Saracens) 2012
Amber Reed (Bristol Bears) 2012
Leanne Riley (Harlequins) 2013
Emily Scarratt (Loughborough Lightning) 2008
Abbie Scott (Harlequins) 2015
Emily Scott (Harlequins) 2013
Kelly Smith (Gloucester-Hartpury) 2018
Lydia Thompson (Worcester Warriors) 2012
Lagi Tuima (Harlequins) 2018
Alongside are their debut years. Just three players remain from more than a decade ago. Their presence in New Zealand can scarcely be overvalued. Between them Sarah Hunter, Katy Daley-Mclean and Emily Scarratt might possibly represent the three best players the nation has ever produced.
But the list reveals a reassuring spread of experience. It includes players debuting in every year from 2011 to 2019, bar another World Cup year 2014.
Who will the management select this time round? They have proved in the past that they don’t allow themselves to be waylaid by sentiment. They know they will have to make tough choices; they won’t enjoy showing anyone the door at this stage. One happy detail is that future World Cup squads will number 30, so there is the chance that they will all find favour.
But the squad for the 2020 Six Nations differed in several respects: in came Abby Dow, Amelia Harper, Harriet Millar-Mills, Millie Wood and – far more surprisingly – two 17-year-olds, Morwenna Talling and Mia Venner, though Venner was a late addition. Confusingly, it was Venner who found herself debuting; Talling remained unemployed. Neither had the chance to emulate the exploits of other recent youthful additions like Ellie Kildunne, Jess Breach and Sarah Beckett.
Problems arise where injuries have denied players the chance to enhance their reputation. Lagi Tuima and Bryony Cleall have missed the entire season. That is when the door opens for others to seize their chance. Tuima may well have been seen as a long-term replacement for Scarratt in the No 13 shirt. Cleall was called in to provide cover for a prop position. Since her injury Detysha Harper got her chance at prop and Hannah West was a non-playing reserve.
Questions pile up
Will the advertised date for announcing the new contracts be adhered to? Much will depend on a) when a final decision is made about resumption of play; b) how far into the future that date falls. Players won’t enjoy a period of uncertainty while their fate hangs in the balance.
Will 30 contracts be offered? The current total is 28, and the RFU is suffering financial shortfalls like everybody else. They have already offered clubs a multi-million pound subsidy to tide them over. We must hope that the England Women’s programme can continue unaffected.
Will the two players with long-term injuries retain their contracts? They are unlikely to have the chance to play a single game of rugby before that August date-line.
What will the balance of positions be in the 30-strong squad? Simon Middleton had not yet chosen a squad of that size. At the WRWC 2017 it was 28; he has recently expanded training squads to 32 and 34. He has to align the available talent against the overall balance of the squad.
The first need is to decide the split between forwards and backs. In 2017 a last-minute change shifted the ratio from 15 forwards/13 backs to the widely preferred 16/12. The total of 30 gives him more elbow-room.
This is where versatility plays such an important role. An individual able to play two or even three positions is a major asset. With matches following one another four days apart, injuries mean adaptability becomes essential. Then comes the question: how many players for each position? The front row has to be present in good numbers, but other pack positions are less generously covered, especially the second row. England are fortunate in having outstanding players at hooker and flanker who can play elsewhere.
They have three quality scrum-halves, one of whom, Claudia Macdonald, has been used effectively on the wing (and against the Black Ferns!). Four contracted players have worn the No 10 shirt, Amber Reed, Emily Scott, Katy Daley-Mclean and Zoe Harrison. More debatable is the choice at inside centre. For all Reed’s skills, she doesn’t possess the defensive qualities of a Rachael Burford. Harrison has been used there extensively in recent series, but if she’s to be the first-choice stand-in for KD-M, it will be a real challenge for her to adapt quickly to two very different positions in make-or-break matches.
While four outstanding wingers should all be sure of gaining contracts (assuming Abby Dow comes into consideration), it won’t be so straightforward when it comes to selection for the RWC. Wingers rarely find themselves a seat on the bench.
The void imposed by the coronavirus denies the selectors the chance to take a long look at their optimal choices. They may well have to rely on the tried and tested. Between now (May 2020) and the planned start of the World Cup (18 September 2021) a whole raft of matches were planned; sadly only a limited number are likely to survive. Both the summer tour and the autumn internationals are in jeopardy. That’s five opportunities to try out some new faces or new combinations. Let’s hope the 2021 Six Nations will escape unscathed.
It is little relief that all the other nations involved will find themselves in a similar position.
Before the present clampdown it was possible to imagine a Red Roses XV in the knock-out stages of the RWC looking different from recent sides. How times have changed. Now it’s highly unlikely any of the Sevens squad will be considered; and there will be far fewer chances for new faces to make their mark.
A new-look Tyrrells league presents the best openings. But last-minute additions to a strong squad seem improbable.