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Where Warren Gatland's Wales are poised to do the most damage

The best single unit in the Wales side is the formidable back row.

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Blooming marvellous: An Alternative Red Roses 1-15

By Claire Thomas
May Campbell of Saracens charges upfield during the Allianz Premier 15's Final between Saracens Women and Exeter Women at Sixways Stadium on June 03, 2022 in Worcester, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Seven rounds of Premier 15s played. Seven weekends of wondering when someone’s finally going to give Gloucester-Hartpury a good rattle. Seven weeks of wishing Helena Rowland would hurry up and be injury-free already. Seven match days when Wasps and Worcester Warriors have been brilliant for simply making it to kick-off. Seven rounds until the TikTok Women’s Six Nations gets underway. A perfect time to pause, and assess the lay of the land.

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England Head Coach Simon Middleton is spoiled for choice – he really is. There are so many brilliant Red Roses available to him, he could open a florists, and – despite this looking set to be the most competitive, professionalised edition of the Six Nations yet – their title defence feels inevitable.

Of course, Maud Muir will play in the Six Nations. Obviously, Rosie Galligan will get the nod. Just as Ben Earl and Elliot Daly were shoe-ins for their selections in England’s Men’s side this week, there’s no way Tatyana Heard and Zoe Aldcroft won’t be swapping one red and white jersey for another, come March.

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But what about those who didn’t go to the World Cup? Who are the next cabs off the rank? Or those who’ve not worn the rose for a while? There are plenty: this is one of the hardest teams to get into in world sport…

It’s time to mark your cards. Here’s a (by no means exhaustive) 1 to 15 of players you’d love to think are – X-Factor Judges’ Houses-style – up on the selectors’ boards right about now.

1. It immediately becomes apparent how tough this will be. Simi Pam! Katie Trevarthen! – but it’s got to be Liz Crake. The Wasps captain has been putting out staggering numbers across 80-minute performances, and thoroughly deserved to go viral with her fend and assist against Loughborough in the sixth round. I spoke to Head Coach LJ Lewis before that match, and she’s been chirping up on the dentist-come-wrecking-ball’s behalf: reminding those within the England set-up, that – although Wasps are struggling this season – Crake is producing the rugby of her career. Read our recent interview with Liz Crake on her Wasps captaincy here.

2. May Campbell is a pocket-sized force of nature, and the perfect hooker for a Saracens team who go to work with all the ferocity you’d expect from a team who dub themselves the ‘wolf pack’ and have a propensity for simply squishing defences off the back of line outs. She’s scored seven tries in six appearances, and looks an increasingly prominent leader within a side already swimming in experience. She was named in the squad for last season’s Six Nations: this could well be the year she makes it onto the pitch.

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3. She’s captained England U18s, she’s represented the U20s, and is surely on the senior coaches’ radars: 21-year-old Kelsey Clifford has made herself the regular tight-head within a genuinely world class pack. She was involved in all but one match of Saracens’ title-winning 2021/22 season – starting both play-off fixtures – and is right in the thick of things again this campaign.

4. Working on the Premier 15s highlights last year was a brilliant opportunity to glimpse prodigious players in action away from live-streamed matches, and Lilli Ives Campion popped up so frequently that it’s been no surprise whatsoever watching her tear it up recently. The U20s representative is both quick thinking and straight-up quick, plus a workhorse who looks right at home in Loughborough Lightning’s star-studded set of forwards. Head Coach Rhys Edwards speaks glowingly of how conscientious she is, and how much more there is to come.

5. Poppy Leitch hasn’t been involved in a Six Nations since 2019, when the 25-year-old won the most recent of her seven caps. She’s not just a tireless engine room operator, but a natural leader: a history-forging co-captain last season at Chiefs, and coach of Exeter University’s women, who were promoted to the top tier of BUCS rugby last season – and are thriving. The sort of character you want in your squad, and the fact she regularly puts in 80-minute shifts at the heart of the side currently sat second is some bonus.

6. Alex Matthews is so eternally excellent that it feels odd to even contemplate another athlete in that blindside jersey, but Ebony Jefferies would wear it well, you feel. Competition for a spot in Susie Appleby’s back row is fierce, but the Truro-born youngster was involved in 19 of Exeter’s 21 matches last season – scoring in the final against Saracens.

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7. This isn’t Exeter Chiefs-sponsored: promise. It’s just that Maisy Allen was actually the athlete who inspired this column, because she’s pulling up trees right now. A Hartpury College graduate, now studying at Exeter – she’s skippered the U20s, played 7s internationally, and might be just 5’4, but frequently proves impossible to stop. She has eight tries in six appearances this season in the league (plus scored in each of her four Allianz Cup outings), and feels veritably omnipresent. We asked her about senior England honours, after Chiefs dismantled Harlequins before Christmas, and the rain-sodden Player of the Match was characteristically level-headed: ‘well, of course that’s always the dream, but it’s heads down at the moment at Chiefs. You can’t ask for things too soon.’ Having Sadiya Kabeya and Allen nipping at Marlie Packer’s world-beating heels truly is an embarrassment of Roses.

8. Daisy Hibbert-Jones has been proclaimed the next Sarah Hunter, which is as lofty as accolades come, and she is doing plenty to suggest that there’s justification for that hype. The abrasive back-rower signed for Lightning this summer, and promptly scored the fastest try in the league’s history – right from kick-off against her former club, Sale Sharks. She wore Hunter’s jersey at the base of the scrum with aplomb in her absence, and will be soaking up a huge amount from their back row consisting of the England skipper, Kabeya, and Scotland captain Rachel Malcolm.

9. Mo Hunt. This is hardly a hot take, but the fact remains that Hunt is playing rugby for Gloucester-Hartpury from another planet right now. Lucy Packer and Leanne Riley remain classy operators, and there are plenty of bright young things at scrum half across the league (Brooke Bradley, Ella Wyrwas, and Flo Robinson spring to mind) – but the World Cup winner is the beating heart of the league’s best team, and deserves to help England to yet another Six Nations title. We all know how good Hunt is, so that’s that.

10. We’ve not seen her in an England jersey for a while, but hasn’t Emily Scott been excellent? Safe as houses beneath high balls, churning out mazy runs, and as wily as they come. Arabella McKenzie has been a revelation at Quins, and it’s coincided with a real purple patch for one of her fellow quartered playmakers.

11. Four scores, hundreds of metres, and captaincy duties within a Worcester Warriors side who have a decent mid-table foothold – despite everything the last six months have thrown at them. I remember Vicky Laflin as an eye-catching teenager a couple of years ago – a whippet in a rugby jersey, ghosting through defences. She’s more of a presence now – powerful as well as evasive – and we’ve not seen the best of her yet.

12. Sophie Bridger is ridiculously talented and has taken to the Premier 15s like a duck to water. She’s gone from captaining Hartpury University to a national title, to playing the most wonderful, fearless rugby against some of the very best in the world. She’s a West Country game breaker – who’ll come on leaps and bounds playing alongside the equally prodigious Lleucu George, and competing each week with Heard for that inside centre jersey.

13. Bristol Bears are just starting to find their feet this season, but Phoebe Murray has been excellent throughout their campaign. The 23-year-old captained the U20s back in 2018, and – like Bridger – can change a match in a moment with her scything runs and eye for a gap.

14. A new name blew everyone away early on in the season by racing to the top of the try-scorers’ leader board: the prolific Ellie Rugman, who was proving a whitewash magnet for Gloucester-Hartpury. Where had this points machine come from? Turns out it was a newly-wedded Ellie Underwood all along, but a more devastating a finisher than ever before. She’s nabbed nine in six outings, and can thank the Cherry and Whites’ phenomenal pack and half-backs for several of those – but a few have taken quite some finishing. The footballer-turned second row-turned centre-turned winger spent time with England in 2019: could her stats have caught the coaches’ eyes, four years on?

15. Between Rugman and Emma Sing, Gloucester-Hartpury have notched over 100 points this season already. That’s a ridiculously big number from a ridiculously good team, and it’s only fair that Sing occupies this fullback jersey. She kicks both the goals and the leather off the ball, punctures defensive lines like so many readily-dismissible balloons, puts those around her through gaps, and rules the airwaves in a league in which the calibre of aerial battles is improving by the week. It’s incredibly easy to forget that she’s still just 21, and nigh-on impossible not to see her playing a big part in this year’s Red Roses campaigns.

So, there you have it: a starting XV who’d play some scintillating rugby and give most international sides a run for their money.

Of course, the vast majority of the England squad who headed to New Zealand will be called up for the Six Nations. They’re some of the best in the world and deserve to defend their Northern Hemisphere throne in front of a record-breaking crowd at Twickenham. But it’s clear there are plenty within the Premier 15s vying for those jerseys who could thrive at Test level.

Seven rounds played. Seven more to go before the international break. I’d buy tickets to see these alternative Red Roses play. They’d be blooming marvellous.

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