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Picking an England Squad – Two Versions

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One man has bravely put his head above the parapet to look across no-man’s-land to the World Cup. Harry Latham-Coyle has offered us his reading of a likely Red Roses squad to fly out to New Zealand.

His choice reduced to a mere list:

Lark Davies, Amy Cokayne, Heather Kerr, Hannah Botterman, Vickii Cornborough, Sarah Bern, Shaunagh Brown, Detysha Harper, Zoe Aldcroft, Abbie Ward, Morwenna Talling, Sarah Hunter, Marlie Packer, Poppy Cleall, Sarah Beckett, Vicky Fleetwood, Harriet Millar-Mills, Leanne Riley, Natasha Hunt, Claudia Macdonald, Zoe Harrison, Helena Rowland, Emily Scott, Emily Scarratt, Amber Reed, Jess Breach, Abby Dow, Ellie Kildunne, Lydia Thompson, Sarah McKenna

Total 30, 17 forwards, 13 backs

I have been making the same attempt for over a year, without ever being brave enough to publish it. And I’ve changed mind almost month by month.

There are so many unknowns:
will the RWC take place as advertised?
will everyone be fit?
will the Sevens players be both able and willing to take part (once the Tokyo Olympics are complete – if they themselves can take place as advertised!)? Both events of course still hang by a thread, however confident the publicists may sound.

We can only work on the assumption that they will indeed all be there. Now we hold our breath for nine months.

In the pool stages there are two games England can win at a canter, against Fiji and South Africa, plus the big one against France. What an irony if the French ended a run of seven losses in the game that matters most! For large chunks of the November test at Twickenham they outplayed the Red Roses. So ideally Simon Middleton would like that game to come third.

England have been extremely lucky in the sequencing of matches in recent series. In the 2017 WRWC it went: Spain, Italy, USA France, NZ, a straight run up the rankings table. In the preceding series in New Zealand (Summer 2017): Australia, Canada, NZ. Then in the Super Series: USA, Canada, France, NZ. They can hardly expect such good fortune again.

Middleton and his colleagues have never yet picked a squad of 30. There have been training squads larger than that, and plenty of final 23s. So getting the mix right is a must. They will have learnt a lesson from the 2017 World Cup.  With 28 permitted players, they opted for 15 forwards and 13 backs. Only Wales followed suit. Everyone else took the safer route with a 16:12 split. When Emily Scott succumbed to an untimely injury before departure, her place was taken by Poppy Cleall, thus ensuring the safer ratio.

With two extra players now allowed, how do you apportion the various positions? Latham-Coyle opts for 3 hookers, 5 props, 3 locks, 6 back-row, 3 scrum-halves, 3 fly-halves, 2 centres and 5 back threes. That is 17 forwards and 13 backs. That seems sensible – the two extra bodies divided equally fore and aft.

Or would it be wiser to have 18 forwards on hand?

Of course the name of the game is versatility. With a sequence of fixtures following in shuddering succession, a selector desperately needs players who can shift position without any loss of cohesion. Latham-Coyle makes due allowance for that. There are very few current Red Roses who have played in only one position. Lark Davies, Sarah Bern and Mo Hunt may want to prove me wrong, but I suspect they have appeared exclusively at No 2, No 3 and No 9 respectively. By my reckoning every other squad member has occupied at least two positions.

The positions in detail

The only doubt about the trio chosen to wear No 2: Vicky Fleetwood, listed in the back row, started at hooker in the 2014 final. The selectors might just be prepared to use her as the third option across the five matches. Kerr’s asset is that she has worn both the No 2 and the No 3 shirt, but is unlikely to be picked for tight-head in a knock-out fixture.

Of the five props listed only Botterman and Harper have played frequently on both sides of the scrum; Cornborough played tight-head at the start of her England career. I am minded to add Laura Keates to the five – that of course means an axe has to fall elsewhere. We must assume that the two starting props would be replaced in each game. That would leave only one member of the union relaxing in the stands. I would prefer two. In 2017 there were five props, including Kerr. The management was compelled to play Poppy Cleall at tight-head against Italy in Dublin.

It’s fascinating to see Latham-Coyle list just three lock forwards. He is aware that he has two alternatives hiding in the back-row: Cleall and Millar-Mills who have extensive experience there. It’s one of the game’s oddities that Nos 4 and 5 get replaced so rarely. Perhaps the argument is: all they do is lean on the front row in the scrum and get lifted in the air by others at the line-out. What an easy life! The unvarnished truth will emerge in their memoirs.

One missing element here is Cath O’Donnell who put in a series of outstanding performances in 2019. With the RWC still nine months ahead, is there a chance we may see her restored to action in time? If she were fully fit and game-ready, then Talling’s place would be at risk.

The back row is an area of fierce competition. There are six listed above, but not Alex Matthews, who was good enough to take the field in that 2014 final aged 21. She repeated the feat in 2017 as well as being picked for a 7s Dream Team in the HSBC World Series. If she is available – like the rest of the 7s squad – it would be a brave decision to omit her.

The only unit on the field to pick itself is the trio of No 9s. Phew!

Out behind there are any number of permutations available. The one area of concern is at centre. HL-C picks just two, knowing that Harrison has played No 12 many a time, and Emily Scott is wonderfully versatile. But with the arrival of Rowland on the scene, she may well be seen as third choice No 10, and with Kildunne able to turn out in the centre, her inclusion is rather in doubt. With the backs in particular we are picking from from a heavily laden orchard.

Here is my selection, as of late January 2021

It is about my seventh attempt. The management isn’t allowed such indecision.

Amy Cokayne, Lark Davies
Hannah Botterman, Vickii Cornborough, Sarah Bern, Shaunagh Brown, Detysha Harper, Laura Keates
Zoe Aldcroft, Abbie Ward, Morwenna Talling
Sarah Hunter, Marlie Packer, Poppy Cleall, Sarah Beckett, Vicky Fleetwood, Harriet Millar-Mills, Alex Matthews
Leanne Riley, Natasha Hunt, Claudia Macdonald
Zoe Harrison, Helena Rowland
Emily Scarratt, Amber Reed
Jess Breach, Abby Dow, Ellie Kildunne, Lydia Thompson, Sarah McKenna

They include sixteen who played in 2017 and eight who won a World Cup in 2014. Sarah Hunter and Emily Scarratt would achieve a meritorious fourth RWC appearance. Perhaps even more important, 15 of them are already familiar with New Zealand having taken part in the Women’s International Series in 2017.

By the same stroke, this choice means I have failed to find room for players of outstanding ability, including Amelia Harper, Cath O’Donnell, El Perry, Emily Scott, Heather Kerr, Kelly Smith and Meg Jones. Who’d be a selector?

For once it won’t be easy to fly a replacement out. Quite apart from any persisting quarantine requirements, jet-lag would delay a late addition.

For a touch of perspective let’s look back at the party of 28 selected for the 2017 version.

Zoe Aldcroft (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 4 caps)
Sarah Bern (Bristol, 10 caps)
Rochelle Clark (Worcester Valkyries, 124 caps)
Amy Cokayne (Lichfield, 28 caps)
Vickii Cornborough (Harlequins, 25 caps)
Vicky Fleetwood (Saracens, 61 caps)
Sarah Hunter (captain, Bristol, 93 caps)
Heather Kerr (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 8 caps)
Justine Lucas (Lichfield, 22 caps)
Alex Matthews (Richmond, 31 caps)
Harriet Millar-Mills (Lichfield, 46 caps)
Izzy Noel-Smith (Bristol, 31 caps)
Marlie Packer (Bristol, 47 caps)
Abbie Scott (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 17 caps)
Tamara Taylor (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 105 caps)
+ Poppy Cleall (Bristol)

Rachael Burford (Harlequins, 67 caps)
Natasha Hunt (Lichfield, 37 caps)
Megan Jones (Bristol, 4 caps)
La Toya Mason (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 66 caps)
Katy Mclean (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 85 caps)
Amber Reed (Bristol, 39 caps)
Leanne Riley (Harlequins, 10 caps)
Emily Scarratt (vice-captain) (Lichfield, 69 caps)
Lydia Thompson (Worcester Valkyries, 34 caps)
Danielle Waterman (Bristol, 70 caps)
Kay Wilson (Richmond, 44 caps)
Amy Wilson Hardy (Bristol, 7 caps)

Emily Scott (Saracens, 23 caps) injured pre-tournament. She flew out for the latter stages but did not play.

How fascinating to imagine the XV who played NZ in the final turning out against a 2021 version.