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Analysis: How fly-half Holly Aitchison has unlocked England's attack this Six Nations

By Will Owen
England's fly-half Holly Aitchison (L) is tackled by Scotland's flanker Rachel McLachlan (R) during the Six Nations international women's rugby union match between England and Scotland at Kingston Park in Newcastle upon Tyne in north-east England on March 25, 2023. (Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP) (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

For some reason, England came under fire for scoring too many tries through their pack in the Rugby World Cup. They have the best pack in world rugby, and they have no reason not to use it. A few months down the line, that criticism is null and void, as England’s back three scored a combined nine tries against Italy – and goodness knows how many more Claudia MacDonald would have notched up if she had stayed on the field. The moral of the story: you can defend their pack all you like, but if you leave space out wide, England will be lethal.


In the middle of the action is fly-half Holly Aitchison. There were whispers of speculation over whether Aitchison would fit what England wanted in the 10 shirt – a centre by trade, Aitchison guided Saracens to Premier 15s glory as a fly-half.

With her clubmate Zoe Harrison, a terrific game manager, out injured, and England’s top baller Helena Rowland also out, Aitchison felt like the natural next choice. She hasn’t grabbed many headlines, but the scorelines of her first two tests wearing 10 speak for themselves. The England attack is working, and the Saracen has slotted in seamlessly.

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Let’s examine Aitchison’s influence on the English attack so far in the fly-half position. First up, we’ll look at Jess Breach’s opening try against Italy.

As England enter the 22, Aitchison tells her immediate trio of forwards to carry, sliding out from the first receiver position to the “boot” – the space in behind the carrying forward. The benefit of playing in the boot is Aitchison can call for the ball from the rumbling Cokayne, change tactics and play wide last minute.


But Italy are alive to England’s wide threat so they keep their defence spread. Aitchison, while remaining in a realistic position to call for the ball, asks Cokayne not to pass. Thanks to Italy’s stretched line, Cokayne gets a 1v1 run and England’s supporting forwards clear way beyond the ball, tying a couple of Italian jerseys into the breakdown area. Italy are unable to fold around the ruck and cover the wider threat.

Aitchison moves the ball wide and edge forward Sarah Bern carries up to the 5m line. Once again, Aitchison stands in the boot behind McKenzie Carson, but doesn’t ask for the ball. England are on the front foot and constantly moving forward with these carries, so Aitchison runs the same shape three more times consecutively. Eventually, Italy recognise they have to tighten up their defence and stop England from getting dominant carries.


As soon as Italy narrow their defence, Aitchison finally calls for the ball. In the above image, you can see Italy’s only two defenders opposite Aitchison and the English backs. As well as Aitchison, Tatyana Heard and Lagi Tuima on-screen, England also have Breach, MacDonald and Abby Dow all waiting further outside. Aitchison starts incredibly flat to the line, meaning she doesn’t have to run to draw Veronica Madia in. She can simply catch the ball and throw it as wide as she wants for Breach to score.

On this occasion, Aitchison only touches the ball twice, but her triple threat on the ball (kick, run, pass) and her unpredictability mean Italy have no real choice but to mark her. It’s an unsolvable conundrum when England are moving forward.

Next, let’s look at how Aitchison’s patience and vision unlocked the Scottish defence in round one, resulting in a try for Sadia Kabeya.

Aitchison sits in the boot of another forward group here. She advises Carson to tip the ball on to Zoe Aldcroft, who is running at a weak shoulder.

Not only does Aldcroft make ten metres on the carry, but centre and defensive leader Hannah Smith has to enter the tackle to get her to ground. This means she isn’t there to organise the Scottish defence on the next phase, which Aitchison calls to herself.

As Aitchison catches the ball, Marlie Packer runs an inside line, with Cokayne and Sarah Hunter both running hard on her outside. Much like the last example, Aitchison starts extremely flat, this time jogging for two steps with the ball. This is enough to interest Lyndsay O’Donnell in front of her, then flicking the pass to Heard.

As Heard receives the ball, Leah Bartlett shoots out of line to shut the attack down. Bartlett initially does a really good job of reading the play, but unfortunately she doesn’t have the pace that a centre like Smith or Emma Orr would. Heard still has loads of time on the ball, and passes rapidly to Dow on her outside.

Bartlett is left in no man’s land, having inadvertently created a dog-leg in the Scottish defensive line. If Scotland had one more woman available to them, they may have shut this off – but instead, Dow accelerates into the gap created by Bartlett, rides O’Donnell’s tackle and offloads to Kabeya, who scores.

Make no mistake – this try isn’t necessarily Bartlett’s fault. She was left to defend out wide, which isn’t her job. It ultimately comes down to the split-second decision making of Aitchison at the start of the attack; deciding England were better off carrying first phase to draw more tacklers (and key decision makers) in.

Aitchison had enough time to call for it in the boot, play wide and go through the hands. England probably still would have made a good twenty metres if they did so, but Aitchison spotting a lonesome prop out wide and exploiting her is the difference between a half-break and a try.

People often spout clichés about fly-halves “taking the ball to the line”. In the age of strong defences, this isn’t really a thing anymore. There’s no use in a ten minimising her/his space in which to throw a good pass by running at the line. Instead, a good attacking fly-half like Aitchison will start flat before receiving the ball, then pick their options.

If they’re a genuine running threat, which we all know Aitchison is from her time playing in the centres, the nearest player will have to mark them, even if they’re stood totally static. So many players in this situation would be keen to do too much themselves, but not Holly Aitchison.

Don’t get me wrong, England could probably pick Hannah Botterman at 10 and still be one of the best attacking sides on the planet. But the way England’s attack is cruising through defences right now, you have to suspect even world-class operators like Harrison and Rowland will have to work really hard to win that 10 jersey back.

It has taken Holly Aitchison less than two games to go from “ball playing centre filling in at fly-half” to “top-end international playmaker”. Just when you thought England couldn’t possibly develop more outstanding options in the backline, Aitchison proves everybody wrong.


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1 Comment
Mike 454 days ago

Great analysis, thank you

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