Thirty nine players were included in the England fold. Here’s an attempt to assess their contributions
Sarah Hunter (captain)
Fears that she might not complete the course to the World Cup were confounded by another series of dominant displays at the base of the scrum. She leads by example and the quiet word. She was captaining her country way back in 2012, a remarkable example of service.
Zoe Aldcroft †
A quite outstanding season for her after a lengthy injury. She led the 6N stats at the line-out and was a constant presence at breakdown and breakaway. Offered a herculean effort in Pau and was Player of the Match versus Ireland.
Sarah Beckett †
She is rapidly making herself indispensable to England’s efforts. While her No 8 play is still developing, her performances on the flank placed her high on all the statisticians’ honours boards.
A quieter season for her this year, but that’s a relative term. Her contributions in the loose add immensely to her primary role as a prop. Thoroughly deserved her nomination as World Player of the Year at the age of 22.
Time is on her side. Her technique at the set-scrum is still a work in progress, but her involvement everywhere else makes her a crowd favourite.
She has gone on honing her skills. Her pace is a constant threat, while her footwork is a connoisseur’s delight and her defensive input wholehearted.
Another crowd favourite and deservedly so. She has one more year to polish her scrummaging techniques before the World Cup, but her contributions in the loose are eye-catching.
In many respects the season couldn’t have been worse for this admirable player. She was called into the 6N squad but failed to make an appearance. She remains stuck on that frustrating 49-cap mark. Worse still, the club she has led with such loyalty has been condemned to outer darkness.
She’s had the misfortune to be dogged by injury, so hasn’t been able to add to her debut cap against Ireland in February 2019.
Not for the first time England were a lock short for the 2020 Six Nations, and once more she stepped into the breach. She combined with Aldcroft to provide the outstanding second-row pairing of the tournament. Her handling is as deft as her runs are bullocking. Player of the Match versus Wales.
A relatively quiet Six Nations, but marked by an astonishing 50th cap, gained at the age of 23. That in itself is testimony to her qualities. No wonder New Zealand rugby found it so hard to accept that she wanted to play for her native land.
England were glad and probably relieved to welcome her back to the engine-room, where her experience and skill help all around her. She has chalked up half a century of caps in service to the cause.
The undisputed mistress of link-play. As she approaches her mid-30s her repertoire seems to sharpen. A well deserved nomination for World Player of the Year. She now has the extra incentive of creating a match-winning team around her at Sale Sharks.
She would be the first-choice hooker in most nations’ 1st XV. Accurate at the line-out and effectively busy around the park.
Abby Dow* †
She has enjoyed an exceptional season. Played outstandingly for Wasps (mainly at full-back), then continued her inspired form for her country in the 2020 Six Nations. Her defence matched her attacking verve.
Marlie Packer’s injury gave her the chance to shine in her newer position of No 7. It helped to underline her remarkable pace, while her tackle-count placed her high on the stats lists. No mean feat that she is approaching 80 caps for her country.
Her performances for the U20s made her the first choice replacement for the vital position of open-side flanker. She debuted in the cauldron of Pau and survived it well; a hard tackling prospect for future campaigns.
When Botterman sustained an injury, she had the chance to stake a claim in the front row. She moved from Waterloo to Loughborough to promote her career and has played for the U20s. Like her namesake she has time on her side.
Three seasons as the champion club’s main link-player serve to demonstrate her qualities. Her game-management is excellent; her breadth of skills with hand and foot is restricted only by Daley-Mclean’s primacy in the No 10 shirt.
Mo Hunt and Leanne Riley
Very unfair to treat them together, but their rivalry for the No 9 shirt is one of the delights of the Red Roses’ programme. All the selectors can do at the moment is alternate them on and off the pitch. Perhaps Hunt has the better eye for the break, the outrageous, but Riley’s pass is an object lesson in speed, length and accuracy, helping to gain vital fractions of a second for her back-line. Both are exceptionally fast around the paddock, so repossessions are quickly exploited. Their competition for the position helps to ensure high standards for the team. Hunt’s 50th cap at Bedford was warmly greeted; Riley’s can’t be far behind.
Her displays for Darlington Mowden Park Sharks reminded the selectors of her qualities. She is handicapped by the competition for front-row places, but her versatility as hooker and prop becomes an asset at a World Cup.
She is England’s third choice scrum-half only because of the quality of the other two. She has a reliable service, an eye for the unexpected and disquieting pace.
She has made the No 15 shirt her own since Nolli Waterman’s retirement. Her 7s skills lead to dangerous counter-attacks; her kicking can match the best available in the back-line.
After prominent displays for Bristol she made a heart-warming appearance in the autumn against Italy and marked the occasion with a try. But the queue for places in the back row is long.
It was good to see her restored to the colours after a long dispiriting injury. In fine form for Wasps at No 8, she can play anywhere in the back 5, but such is the competition she still can’t be sure of a starting role. Nolli Waterman’s Try of the Decade reveals HM-M right there to receive a final pass that never comes. A true athlete.
She missed even more of the season than her regular partner, Abbie Scott. But since the management brought in a talented 17-year-old as the only newcomer to the second row, she should be quite sure of being retained for future operations.
Injury deprived England of her services for the 2020 6N, but before that her whole-hearted input continued to inspire the crowds and those around her.
She lost her contract as she moved back from Sarries to Gloucester-Hartpury. She appeared in the Super Series and on the bench at all three autumn internationals, but not in the 6N. The front row isn’t yet a Rolls-Royce engine – she may well make her mark again in the future.
She has at last managed to get a sequence of matches under her belt after a succession of injuries. If her contributions at Pau were the icing on the cake, the selectors will be relieved to see a full-blooded No 12 restored to the strength.
Leanne Riley – see Mo Hunt
World Player of the Year – not a year too soon.
She made two fine appearances against France pre-Christmas, then was stricken with a hip injury. She had to look on (and commentate) as her replacements displayed their wares. But she needn’t worry.
She took on a more responsible role as captain with Quins, whose defence proved more reliable than Sarries’ this year. She showed her wide range of skills when selected for the Red Roses. Her versatility is valuable to the management but doesn’t guarantee her a regular starting place. Player of the Match versus Scotland in the snow.
The tense struggle for places on the wing lessened as she faded from view during the season, though it’s not clear why. At a Lensbury training session in January she stated she was fit, but didn’t make an appearance in the 6N. Her performances in the TP 15s were at her usual high level, though she couldn’t quite repeat her try-scoring record of last year.
The first of two 17-year-olds the selectors produced like rabbits from the conjuror’s hat. Her introduction into the second row for Loughborough marked her out as a special talent. Would she have been allowed a debut appearance against the Italians? Let’s hope so. England have been hunting for a new-generation figure at lock for some time.
Her competition with Abby Dow on the right wing shows the Red Roses’ strength at its most emphatic. Her progress has been interrupted by injury, but the selectors know what a treasure they have in her presence on the field. She had to wait patiently to produce the moment of the autumn series with that last-minute try against France at Exeter.
It’s been her sad fate to disappear from view for over a season. A leading candidate to inherit the No 13 shirt, she combines power with handling skills and unpredictable lines of running. She needs to get a lot of game-time on her clock.
The second 17-year-old to be unexpectedly called into the 6N squad. Unlike Talling she made an appearance – in the second half of the final match against Wales. Sadly for her, her most noteworthy moment led to the solitary Welsh score, but the selectors were highly impressed with her appearances for Gloucester-Hartpury. One to note for the future.
One of many to return to the 15s fold from the England 7s programme. She will have been pleased to form part of the 6N group but wasn’t able to add to her eight caps. As a powerful centre in the productive back-line at Gloucester-Hartpury she could yet make a bid for a place in the RWC squad.
*Denotes an uncontracted player
† My three breakthrough players of the season