England Women prepare for a Six Nations with a difference
A week from today the Women’s Six Nations 2021 kicks off. The modified tournament structure and delayed start date have, understandably, resulted in mixed feelings but it’s great to have games about to kick off again. We caught up with England Women head coach Simon Middleton to get his thoughts on this years squad, the games head and more.
Middleton, for anyone who hasn’t seen him in pre or post-match interviews or listened to the recent Inside Line podcast for the RFU, is an affable guy, open and honest in his answers and clearly incredibly passionate about his role and the women in his charge.
The Red Roses will begin their defence of the championship in Doncaster as they take on Scotland before taking on Italy in Padova. Then they’ll enjoy a rest week before, they hope, taking on the best team from Pool B in a match they’ll be hosting in a location yet to be named (but we’re keeping our fingers crossed for Twickenham). All the games will be broadcast on iPlayer with the final one going out live on BBC 2, a move that has huge potential for getting eyes on what should be a hugely entertaining game, likely against France.
Middleton’s side will, for the first time in recent memory, not contain Katy Daley-Mclean after the talismanic fly-half retired from internationals at the tail end of last year, he’s also without one of his side’s biggest characters in Natasha Hunt as Mo is out injured, though Middleton notes she was considering taking time out from her international career. Personally, I hope it’s a break rather than a retirement as for all the great work she’s been doing as a pundit and commentator, Hunt still has so much to give at the top level.
Further absences include props Laura Keates and Sarah Bern while Hannah Botterman makes her return from a long time out. “You’re gonna miss a player like Hannah, in the same way we’re missing Sarah (Bern), those are dynamic front rowers! The thing with Botts is you can take it for granted, because of the impact she has, that she’s made it… but she has a lot of challenges still in front of her! She’s been in camp the last couple of weeks doing volume running and working with Alex Martin our Strength and Conditioning coach. She’s back into her rugby this week and it’s been great having her on the field. There’s still a little bit more to do before we get her where we want her but it’s great to have her back!”
In further positive news England captain Sarah Hunter returns from injury to provide a galvanising presence for her team. Also back in the squad is Cath O’Donnell, the lock described by Middleton as “so underestimated as a player. She’s so fundamental to how we play… a very different type of player to the other second rows we’ve got.”
As well as some veteran presence returning to the team, the squad has been expanded with six development player spots. Players like Maud Muir and Ellie Green have been lighting up the Allianz Premier 15s and Middleton calls out Flo Robinson as a player who has stepped up in training during the absence of established choices. It sounds as if the Exeter Chiefs scrum half is in with a shout of a spot in the team already!
“This is the benefit of having Amy Turner as our World Cup intern” Simon tells us. Turner, normally in charge of the under 20’s programme, has been working closely with the senior set up in the road to the (delayed) World Cup. “The insights she’s able to provide us in terms of the players we were looking for – we looked across the squad and where we had a few shortfalls we selected along those lines. There were probably some senior players in various teams we could have brought in but we need to support the pathway, it’s under pressure because of Covid. It made sense to me to bring in some of our under 20s who were playing AP15s and were already in our pathway who we knew were capable of training at the level required. I can’t speak highly enough of them, they’ve been so good and they’ve surprised a few of he senior players! A few of them are looking over their shoulders now who wouldn’t have been a few weeks back!”
The addition of Green, as well as Zoe Harrison and Helena Rowland leaves Middleton with a lot of options at fly-half. He’s also named Wasps’ sevens star Meg Jones in the squad but sees her playing a different role for her country than the one she does in a 10 shirt at her club. “She’s an exceptional talent is Meg. Back in the 2017 world cup she played 13 and full back. She can probably play anywhere knowing Meg, but the way we play – we like a first and second receiver who can play and can kick. Meg’s kicking game isn’t as strong as Zoe’s or Helena’s so she’s probably more suited to 12. She’s a great threat on the ball, she can step up at first receiver and if you want someone to take the line on she’s your girl!”
Having a variety of players who can step in at first and second receiver has been a hallmark of Simon’s England teams, with Harrison often wearing 12 when Daley-Mclean was at fly-half. Emily Scarratt is always an option too, as another player who could probably step in anywhere in the backline and shine. Middleton notes that Saracens’ Sarah McKenna has been stepping up in the middle lately and putting her hand up to have a go at first receiver too.
The team meet up on Monday in Doncaster and will stay there all week in preparation for the game next Saturday before basing themselves at Pennyhill Park for the remainder of the tournament. If their head coach’s reactions are anything to go by they’ll be champing at the bit to get going against Scotland next week and it promises to be an exciting Six Nations!