Holly Aitchison: 'Zoe was massively influential in helping me to transition'
Holly Aitchison shone for the Red Roses in their most recent Grand Slam winning Six Nations campaign, as she slotted into the number ten shirt seamlessly, and week after week, controlled the game expertly in the middle.
Off the pitch, she’s a quiet and relatively introverted figure, and the change in position from centre to fly half has meant that now more than ever her voice is a key element to team proceedings.
“I think I’ve actually had a lot of growth in myself and enjoyed the challenge of growing to speak in front of people which is something I’ve naturally really struggled with,” she told Nick Heath from Level, while reflecting on her journey with self-confidence.
“Also being a different position and being closer to the ball I just think my skillset lends itself a little bit better there. More touches, being able to manipulate defences and work with a lot of the girls that I play with on a regular basis at Sarries, it’s been so enjoyable,” she added with a smile.
The change in position came about largely due to England’s lack of available players who could play fly-half for the Six Nations, particularly with Saracens teammate Zoe Harrison ruled out due to an ACL injury, but was also something that had been in the pipeline for a while.
Prior to the tournament former Red Roses head coach Simon Middleton spoke of Aitchison’s desire to be selected and about conversations that had been ongoing with her Saracens head coach Alex Austerberry surrounding the potential switch of position.
Before Harrison’s injury in February, the two had regularly played alongside each other at Saracens and have crafted a formidable 10-12 partnership that has been invaluable to the club. With Aitchison now well versed to play in both positions, newly appointed Red Roses coach John Mitchell may face a challenge of how best to select the 25-year-old.
“We have been blessed and very lucky to have them complementing each other,” Austerberry explained.
“There are different strengths, different balances in their game, but ultimately to have two high-quality players with the ability to manage a team around the park, to create opportunity, for us it’s been a real luxury and for England it will become a really difficult decision.
“As coaches it’s great to have competition, it’s great to have high quality in positions. Then it’s seeing where they go with it, 10-12, what other balances they look at will be exciting to watch and see if we can get any ideas of how they do it and how we can maximise those two together,” the club head coach added with anticipation.
The connection between Harrison and Aitchison stretches further than their cohesion on the pitch that we have seen in recent years. Having gone to the same college, their friendship has flourished over the years both on and off the pitch.
Aitchison returned to playing the 15s game following a memorable few years representing her country at sevens, making her England debut in 2017 aged 19 in Las Vegas. It was a hugely memorable trip all round, not least because of the age restrictions where the tournament was being held.
Aitchison reflected on her debut: “That was wild. When I think about debuting in Vegas, it’s such a big stage and the party atmosphere was insane, but I couldn’t go into anywhere because I was 19 and everywhere is 21 to get into.
“It was a really cool experience and everything you dream of when you make that final England debut but it was a bit of an anti-climax.”
She went on to represent Team GB at the Olympics in Tokyo in 2021 where the team finished in fourth place after a well-fought bronze medal match against Fiji.
Harrison, a long-standing friend, was a significant figure in helping Aitchison readjust to 15s after multiple years playing sevens.
“When I came back in from sevens Zoe was massively influential in helping me to transition. She definitely got me back up to speed with more of the kicking and tactical awareness, which is something that she’s obviously world-class at.”
“She has been a really good friend throughout. We went to Hartpury [College] together so we’ve known each other for a really long time. We had that time when I went into sevens and kind of did my own thing and added a few other bits to my skillset, but it’s been really nice to come back and transition and have the help from her to do that as well,” she added while reminiscing on their personal and collective journeys.
With the help of Harrison, Aitchison was able to find her feet in the England set-up for 15s as she had done for sevens.
The process of being immersed into the Red Roses camp so soon after her return to the 15 aside game was slightly unnerving for Aitchison, with the opportunity to play at centre coming about early on.
“I think it was very daunting having been out of 15s for so long. I’d spent a good four seasons in sevens so I came [into Red Roses camp] with an open mindset where I didn’t really expect to play.
“Unfortunately, Scaz [Emily Scarratt] had an injury and I’d come into the first training camp and Mids [Simon Middleton] was just like give it a go whichever position you want to go in at.
“I thought there are a lot of spaces at 13, we’ve not got loads of people running through, so I kind of naturally slotted in there and didn’t really think much of it apart from I just didn’t know anything,” she explained with a laugh.
“I came back and the game had moved on so much, I felt like I was so far behind yet I was still in the England squad and kind of expected to produce these performances. I think it was all a bit daunting. I didn’t really think about it too much at the time but looking back I’m like ‘oh god that was actually quite a big thing to do’,” she added.
Aitchison’s journey to the present day and her growing confidence both as a player and a person has been evident. This year in particular she has bravely spoken out about struggles with her skin, and in turn, opened up the conversation with an aim to inspire others going through a similar situation.
In partnership with Clinique, she has not only provided a refreshing openness in discussions about acne but also a commitment to financially support grassroots girls’ rugby clubs.
“I just can’t even begin to explain how amazing and surreal it’s felt to be working with Clinique and putting together the campaign to work with young girls and hopefully have a positive influence on their lives coming through the system, it’s honestly been a dream,” she said while beaming.
“It’s just been so special because I meet the girls at the clubs that we’ve selected and you just look around and think ‘That was literally me, I relate to every one of you in some way’.”
Inspiring girls to feel confident in their skin and be involved in sport is something that she holds close to her heart. Looking ahead to a home World Cup in 2025, she hopes that rugby will continue to provide a place for girls to flourish.
“I think rugby in general, we talk about being diverse and having a place for everyone, that is literally the ethos of the game.
“I think definitely when we’re talking about influencing and inspiring the next generation of women to get into sport, you look at teams like the Lionesses and what we hope to emulate in 2025 and how much that can influence and impact the national curriculum and girls specifically, playing football in schools.
“Hopefully, we can have the same kind of impact so that these girls growing up can know that this is something that they can achieve”.
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Retallick and whitelock still good enough to take on the best but they have to produce the quality several games in a row. Who do the Kiwis have after they and Scott b? At least the front row will be okay. Back row interesting coz Sam came and Ardie look sorta essential but can it work? Works better with brodies work rate but still.. what do you think nick. Can they get away without the backup locks?Go to comments
He’s probably right. The Boks are going to play like the Boks and that’s hard to shake but on saying that the Boks were done in Brighton and pressured by Japan in Japan. Dunno what tongas got in the front row but their loosies will be powerful and their back three very dangerous. Maybe Adam coleman at lock and sekope kepu up front?Go to comments