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Helena Rowland: Sidestepping into England's number 10 jersey

By Lucy Lomax
Helena Rowland breaks away from Les Elder of New Zealand during the Autumn International between England Red Roses and New Zealand at Franklin's Gardens on November 07, 2021 in Northampton, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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If you’ve been watching women’s domestic or international rugby over the past few months no doubt you’ll have spotted Helena Rowland. An out and out playmaker, someone who makes things happen on the pitch, her footwork has been rewarded with brilliant tries whilst playing as part of an exciting 10/12 axis for both club and country.

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Since England’s talismanic number ten Katy Daley-Mclean announced her retirement in December 2020, the conversation switched to who will be the player to supersede the jersey. Many singled out the younger players Zoe Harrison and Rowland.

The pair have exchanged the starting ten shirt multiple times since then, but Harrison got the nod more recently for England’s three Autumn internationals including the two games against the world champion Black Ferns (and shining throughout). Despite this, Rowland was given the opportunity at inside centre, a position she played more of during her school days, but believes the fly-half door is still wide open.

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“I wasn’t anticipating that I’d play a lot of 12 in the Autumns,” said the 22-year-old. “There was a bit of a last-minute change going into the first New Zealand game. The morning before the game our backs coach Scott Bemand pulled me aside and said ‘just so you know, you might go on at 12 today’. I hadn’t trained there at all, so I was trying to get my head around what I needed to do in the centres, desperately trying to think of all the moves of what 12 does, what rucks I needed to hit, where I needed to be, and then after that game I sat down with Mids (England Head Coach Simon Middleton) and he said I was going to get game time at ten at some point in the Autumn and that he still very much sees me as a fly-half.

“Up until last November I’d played all my games for England at fly-half and I mostly play ten for Loughborough. But I enjoy playing 12 as it gives you that little bit more freedom and time on the ball and it’s great to be part of that 10/12 axis where both of you can step up and be first receiver as myself and Helen Nelson do for Lightning. Playing 12 sees you do a lot more tackling defensively which was a bit of a shock over the Autumns but I enjoyed it!

“Ultimately, with the ten jersey it’s whoever is performing best at the time gets the shirt, which is how it should be and only pushes us to be better.”

The departure of Daley-Mclean from both Loughborough Lightning and England brought an opening for Rowland who left Saracens for the East Midlands club in September 2020 after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was postponed.

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“The decision was made by speaking to the coaches both Rhys Edwards and Mids who both said there was a massive opportunity to play ten with Katy having left, so that was probably the main reason I moved, plus I could combine it with being a sport science student and also it’s a great set up in Loughborough and they play an exciting brand of rugby which was something I was keen to explore.”

The style of rugby played was a selling point for Rowland who has become known for her sizzling sidestep, dazzling opposition and ruining defences with ball in hand, as seen last weekend in her try from outside the 22 against Saracens. A skillset for which she praises her time in the England Sevens set up.

“I’d say the sidestep and foot work has always been a part of my game and the bit I enjoy most is the opportunity to take people on one-on-one and back yourself whilst doing it, and that’s how I get to play at Loughborough in the back field, especially on the counterattack.

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“Sevens helped massively with my confidence, there’s not a lot of structure in sevens, it’s all centred around can you beat your opposite number and the amount of training and one on ones that was built into our week definitely helped my ability to step and take people on.

“I noticed coming back into the 15s side of the game how much more confident I was to challenge the line and run at people and force defenders to make a decision, which is definitely the part of my game I enjoy most. It’s also potentially a bit different to how other tens play at Loughborough and England, I pride myself on more of a running game, than for instance the kicking side.”

The Tokyo Olympian admits taking inspiration from the men’s game and a particular fly-half who plays a similar brand of rugby.

“Watching Marcus Smith and the way he takes on the line and puts other people into space is definitely something I look at. It’s just something a bit different, he’s forming a new kind of ten where your head is up, playing what you see and it’s very instinctive. He’s someone I look at and try to learn from.”

So how does Rowland view the ongoing dream to wear England’s number ten as the World Cup creeps ever closer?

“I try not to read too much into the head to heads you see between me and Zoe in the media. Katy Daley-Mclean left massive boots to fill and her retirement did give us a massive opportunity to try and stake a claim for that shirt but I try to focus on my game and whatever happens with selection happens.

“I try not to get too caught up in the hype of who’s the next fly-half for England!”

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