Source: INPHO

The kicking question!

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It was a question that could have been dismissed with a simple answer, no further expansion asked for, or required.

When Simon Middleton was asked last week if his team’s issues from the tee were a major concern, the England head coach might have batted the query aside, noted a couple of key absentees, insisted his kickers were doing all they could to improve. But, with little else troubling his Red Roses side, the ever-voluble Middleton had been doing some thinking and wanted to share.

“I just think it is a bit of an unfair game because it is so power related,” said Middleton, suggesting that conversions for tries scored out wide could be brought in ten metres, “You want to be rewarded for good skill and I don’t think they get rewarded because of physical constraints that come with what we know is a natural discrepancy between male and female athletes.

“I would hazard a guess that if you gave that option to most kickers in the female game they would bring it in 10m.The closer the games get, the more vital those kicks are going to be. We should be throwing things in there if we think it can improve the game.”

Given England have, of late, produced at least three kickers more than capable and confident standing over touchline conversions, it was perhaps an unnecessary, though well-meaning, suggestion. The critics were many, ex-internationals accusing Middleton of undermining the efforts of players not, perhaps, always appropriately supported to be the best kickers they can be. There are, of course, physiological reasons that women will never match the men for pure power, but in time and as more widespread professionalism begins to show, it may seem curious there was ever a debate as a closed skill is developed.

But all of the debate meant that come 1.45pm on a gorgeous spring Saturday afternoon in Cardiff, there was more attention than usual on the fortunes of four flowing right feet. Lagi Tuima, Holly Aitchison, Helena Rowland and Emma Sing planted their tees on the artificial surface and got to work, striding back, lining up, striking for goal – England’s kicking quartet peppering the frontage beyond the dead ball line, more often than not having bisected the uprights.

In the warm-ups, Sing stood out. The Gloucester-Hartpury youngster repeatedly rattled the top of the stands behind the goalposts, smashing the plastic hoardings with great crashes of her powerful right boot. The full back is widely regarded as one of the best place kickers England have produced, with perhaps the strongest right peg in the Premier 15s. So what did she make of her head coach’s ill-judged suggestion?

“I’m comfortable kicking from 40 plus metres, so it doesn’t really impact me,” Sing remarked. “Why can’t we keep it the same? Every team has got to do the same situation so it doesn’t really make a difference.”

This was Sing’s first England start after a year or so in and around the set-up and two promising bench cameos in the first rounds of this tournament. The nature of England’s superiority means their outside backs can often be afforded relatively easy afternoons, unchallenged aerially and rarely on the retreat, but the full back was tidy in all she did in Cardiff.

“It was pretty much the same as every week,” the 22-year-old reflected afterwards. “We switch quite a lot in training so it doesn’t really make much difference [to be starting]. It was just quite nice to be able to get some more minutes.”

Sing may lack the flashing feet of some of England’s back three cohort, but her long-striding speed provides plenty of threat in wide channels. The youngster is impressive on the gallop, and shows good potential as a distributor, linking up well with her wings. Two misses from five attempts at goal will frustrate Sing but, without Zoe Harrison and Emily Scarratt, her ability from the tee is clearly an asset.

The competition for backline places in the England side is fierce. An injury to Ellie Kildunne – who was seen in a sling afterwards – is a possible concern ahead of the Ireland game, while Aitichison is thought to have now entrenched herself at fly-half. Potential returns for Rowland and Amber Reed’s are likely further complicate matters for the final two weeks as Middleton works out how best to arrange a talented, versatile group. It may be that Sing finds herself squeezed out but, with her boot giving her a real point of difference, in these first three weeks she has shown herself as a player of potential as England begin to build towards 2025.