Source: INPHO

Thoughts on a New England Squad

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John Mitchell has named 38 players to attend initial training sessions for the coming international season. They start next week.

The full list comes below.

First the numbers: not so long ago Simon Middleton included well over 40 players at this stage. That gave him plenty of options at combined and specialist sessions. But it meant too that more players had to suffer disappointment before the final Six Nations squad was announced.

Next the absences: the crucial one is Sarah Bern, suffering a knee injury; nobody can replace her all-round skills. The other injured parties are Amy Cokayne, the two Zoes, Aldcroft and Harrison, Emily Scarratt and Morwenna Talling. Some of them would once have been seen is irreplaceable, but after the triumphs of the past year, more than adequate replacments have been found for them. One inexplicable absence is Poppy Cleall, who was the Player of the Six Nations tournament three years ago.

A Family Gathering: The group welcomes back two relatively new mothers, Abbie Ward and El Perry. Congratulations to both of them. Do all the grounds have creches now? But Vickii Cornborough isn’t one of this special group to be recalled.

The Newcomers: of the six Merryn Doidge presents an unusual case. She was one of two players (the other was Flo Robinson) who were robbed of a first cap when the lights went out in Lille; one of the more bizarre mishaps that can befall a rugby player. She still has no certainty of breaking her duck, as Ellie Kildunne and Emma Sing stand in her path for the 15 shirt.

Much will depend on Mitchell’s long-term strategy. If he wants to see as many players as possible under the pressure of international competition before the next WXV and the World Cup, then the newcomers stand a better chance of appearing.

Lilli Ives Campion is the one specialist lock to stand in for Aldcroft, but she too may have to wait her turn behind Ward, Rosie Galligan and Sarah Beckett. Sharifa Kasolo has done well to force her way into the Sarries set-up and importantly she provides competition for Sadia Kabeya as back-up for the captain at 7.

Katie Buchanan, Lizzie Hanlon and Gabriella Nigrelli will all be delighted to join the elite group, but they too know this is merely the first stepping-stone. Competition for places will be tough, spelled TUFF.

Club Representation: perhaps it isn’t odd how closely the number of players each club can boast reflects the current league table:

Saracens 9, Gloucester-Hartpury 8, Bristol Bears 6, Exeter Chiefs 5, Loughborough Lightning 5, Harlequins 3, Leicester Tigers 1, Trailfinders Women 1. But the absence of Sale Sharks from this list is concerning, even though Talling would have been there if fit.

Who compiled the recipe? If Mitchell can claim he led the way in composing this list, then he is a remarkable coach. My feeling is he must have followed advice from his assistants, who helped Middleton then Louis Deacon in selecting and preparing the 2023 6N Grand Slam and WXV1 winners.
The next time Marlie Packer plays, it will be her 100th cap. Let’s be naughty and add: ‘if selected.’

The Full Squad (the six newcomers shown in bold):

Forwards: Maisy Allen (Exeter Chiefs), Lark Atkin-Davies (Bristol Bears), Sarah Beckett (Gloucester-Hartpury), Hannah Botterman (Bristol Bears), Mackenzie Carson (Gloucester- Hartpury), Kelsey Clifford (Saracens), May Campbell (Saracens), Rosie Galligan (Saracens), Lizzie Hanlon (Exeter Chiefs), Daisy Hibbert-Jones (Loughborough Lightning), Lilli Ives Campion (Loughborough Lightning), Sadia Kabeya (Loughborough Lightning), Sharifa Kasolo (Saracens), Alex Matthews (Gloucester-Hartpury), Maud Muir (Gloucester-Hartpury), Gabriella Nigrelli (Bristol Bears), Cath O’Donnell (Loughborough Lightning), Marlie Packer (Saracens), El Perry (Gloucester- Hartpury), Connie Powell (Harlequins), Abbie Ward (Bristol Bears)

Backs: Holly Aitchison (Bristol Bears), Sophie Bridger (Saracens), Jess Breach (Saracens), Katie Buchanan (Exeter Chiefs), Merryn Doidge (Exeter Chiefs), Abby Dow (Trailfinders Women), Sydney Gregson (Saracens), Tatyana Heard (Gloucester-Hartpury), Natasha Hunt (Gloucester- Hartpury), Megan Jones (Leicester Tigers), Ellie Kildunne (Harlequins), Claudia MacDonald (Exeter Chiefs), Lucy Packer (Harlequins), Amber Reed (Bristol Bears), Helena Rowland (Loughborough Lightning), Emma Sing (Gloucester-Hartpury), Ella Wyrwas (Saracens)