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Which Red Roses make it on the plane to New Zealand?

By Matt Merritt
Sarah Hunter of England speaks with her side in the team huddle following the 2021 Women's Six Nations match between England and France. (Photo by Alex Davidson - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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With the Allianz Premier 15s over for another season and Saracens Women once again reigning supreme it feels like a quiet time for women’s rugby, but behind the scenes it’s all go as teams prepare for the World Cup.

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Details around the tournament have started to be announced and we now know that each country will name a squad of 32 players, so it’s time for me to play rugby’s own Nostradamus and have a go at predicting the players Simon Middleton will be handing boarding passes to.

Before we begin, let’s consider how those 32 places break down. Teams have to name nine specialist front row players, which means 23 places to share around the other positions, quite the drop off from the 40-player training squad the Red Roses started with for the Six Nations.

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Abbie Ward on beating New Zealand, moving to Bristol and quick-fire questions | Tunnel talk
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Abbie Ward on beating New Zealand, moving to Bristol and quick-fire questions | Tunnel talk

Given that injuries are bound to happen, versatility will be key, but nonetheless for the sake of working things out I’ve gone with a squad breakdown as follows: nine front row, four locks, six back row, three scrum halves, two fly halves, three centres, three wing and two full backs. Many of the players will be able to swap their spot but even so there will be a few big names who might miss out, and I’ll flag up any outside bets too.

So let’s dive straight in with the front row. There are five names here that I’ve written down without even thinking about it: Vickii Cornborough is probably the most complete prop in the team and in my book, she starts every game at loosehead when fit. Hannah Botterman is her biggest rival for the one shirt and while she might not be as well rounded in set piece situations, she’s deadly in the loose so a fantastic bench option.

Amy Cokayne and Lark Davies are a coin toss for starting and bench hookers, Davies is a try scoring machine and Cokayne is a wild card with a dazzling skill set. Both of whom would be pushing to start for any team in the world right now. Then you move across to tighthead where Sarah Bern is redefining what being a prop means. She plays the game like Ireland’s Tadgh Furlong. She has pace, supreme carrying ability and an unbelievable engine, so much so that Bristol Bears have even moved her to the back row late on in games this season.

Five places gone, five world class players picked. Next up for me is Maud Muir. Still very young at 20 years of age, but probably the second-best tighthead available. More importantly she can also hook and scrum on either side of the pack so right there we find the versatility we talked about previously.

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That gives us two full front rows so with three places left there are lots of options, but I suspect Gloucester-Hartpury’s Connie Powell maintains her space as the third-choice hooker as she’s looked comfortable when called upon. Shaunagh Brown has slipped down the pecking order of late but I could see her ferocious defensive efforts being enough to maintain her place in the squad.

That leaves one spot open and many will be calling for the sensational Simi Pam to be included here but I’m not convinced Middleton will take a risk on an uncapped player this late in the day, so my money is on Bryony Cleall being the final front row in the mix. However, don’t be too surprised if Detysha Harper gets in ahead of either Cleall or Brown as she’s another who has never let the side down when called upon. If it were really up to me though I’d probably be looking at Bristol’s Hannah West, another versatile player, dependable when throwing in to the line out and one who is quietly excellent game after game.

On to the second row and World Player of the Year Zoe Aldcroft is a shoo-in as is Abbie Ward. The first two places are dead easy, but then it gets tougher. I’d expect Harlequins’ Rosie Galligan to take the third spot after a really positive performance in the spring. The fourth place is really up for grabs though, could it be Harriet Millar-Mills, Rowena Burnfield, Cath O’Donnell or Morwenna Talling? They have all been involved when fit and Middleton is a big fan of Talling in particular, but she has been out all season with the others also ending the season injured so it may simply be a race to see who is fit first.

Equally there are options in the back row who can easily step into the engine room if needed and that’s why I’m going to go off the board a little bit and pick Sarah Beckett as a lock option here – she’s played the role for Harlequins Women on a number of occasions this season and it really allows her to use her power to the greatest effect in the scrum.

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The back row options begin with talismanic captain Sarah Hunter, but you could start an all-Saracens line-up of Marlie Packer, Vicky Fleetwood and Poppy Cleall to devastating effect too (you might also put Cleall or perhaps Hunter into the second row). All four will be straight onto the plane. Alex Matthews will be there too; her work rate is unsurpassed and she offers real versatility. For the final spot let’s eschew that versatility and opt for a real specialist – Sadia Kabeya is a huge talent and a true openside (and probably Packer’s heir apparent) so she gets my vote.

Scrum-half is one of England’s strongest positions with two players scrapping it out to start, and if it isn’t perhaps quite the same class as France’s choices of Laure Sansus and Pauline Bourdon, then the choice of Leanne Infante or Natasha Hunt isn’t far off. For me Infante probably starts as Hunt’s energy offers more of a game changing opportunity. In the continued absence of Claudia MacDonald, the third-choice spot is less clear and whilst Lucy Packer has looked great for Harlequins and when called upon for England I’ve decided to opt for Saracens’ Ella Wyrwas as she’s a little more versatile and more likely to be a threat if moved to the wing.

A really outside pick might be Flo Robinson who can play nine or ten and has been around the Red Roses squads but is a little further back in her development right now.

Fly-half is probably the least contentious position here with Zoe Harrison and Helena Rowland the clear first and second choices. The pair are versatile too, with both being an inside centre option and Rowland possibly even making a case to wear the 15 shirt.

In the midfield you start with Emily Scarratt at outside centre and then work out who to fit around her. I’ve not given myself room for many options but either of my fly-halves could slot in at 12, as could both my other picks. Holly Aitchison is probably the most able deputy for Scaz that Middleton has at his disposal. I’d say she starts at 12 and can also cover fly-half if required so she is in.

My other pick is also hugely skilled but doesn’t always get the plaudits she deserves. Amber Reed is a lynchpin player for Bristol Bears Women and a natural leader with some of the best hands in the Premier 15s. In my opinion she offers her best every game.

That means announcing my biggest omission yet – due to the player numbers available I don’t think Lagi Tuima makes it unless there is an injury along the way. It’s a big shame, not least as I’m a huge fan of the way Tuima plays the game but her form has dipped a little this season whereas both Aitchison and Reed have been the model of consistency.

Onto the wings now and having only given myself three spots to fill I’m let off the hook somewhat by Abby Dow being out injured for the tournament. It’s a huge loss as she has been consistently excellent whether in a Wasps or England shirt, but the team aren’t short of other options. Jess Breach is straight in of course and I’ve picked her Quins teammate and England Sevens player Heather Cowell too. Both are deadly try scorers and have dancing feet to keep defenders on their toes. Lydia Thompson gets the third berth as another lethal scoring threat. Thompson has had her own injury issues though so this is one position where Middleton might end up with an untested player if Thompson is unavailable. Another England Sevens flyer Grace Crompton is an exciting talent who is definitely on the radar for a space on the wing for the national team. There are also some fullback options who could be deployed out wide if required. Ellie Boatman and Alicia Maude are two others making their name on the sevens circuit who could be worth a call if injuries hit.

Which brings us to the last line of defence and I’ve gone with two distinctly different players here. Saracens’ Sarah McKenna is my first pick. The definition of reliable, she’s always a safe pair of hands at the back and can even take a turn at inside centre should the need arise.

She’s a calm head and another who simply knows how to win after being so consistent for club and country over the years. I suspect Middleton goes with Ellie Kildunne as his other choice. She’s a different prospect entirely, leaving more gaps for the opposition but also making more plays herself and possessing lightning pace that draws defenders like a magnet.

This is another spot open to debate and if I had to make the call, I would probably put newly capped Emma Sing just ahead of Kildunne. She’s a better kicker and has really quarterbacked the Gloucester-Hartpury attack this season, she’s also no slouch when it comes to running at the opposition, however, Kildunne’s experience on the international stage gives her the edge. Merryn Doidge of Exeter Chiefs is another who I thought a year ago might get the call up here but I get the feeling she’s slipped down the pecking order for now.

Matt’s squad:
Props: Sarah Bern, Vickii Cornborough, Hannah Botterman, Maud Muir, Bryony Cleall, Shaunagh Brown
Hookers: Amy Cokayne, Lark Davies, Connie Powell
Locks: Zoe Aldcroft, Abbie Ward, Rosie Galligan, Sarah Beckett
Back row: Sarah Hunter, Poppy Cleall, Vicky Fleetwood, Marlie Packer, Alex Matthews, Sadia Kabeya
Scrum-halves: Leanne Infante, Natahsa Hunt, Ella Wyrwas
Fly-halves: Zoe Harrison, Helena Rowland
Centres: Emily Scarratt, Holly Aitchison, Amber Reed
Wings: Jess Breach, Heather Cowell, Lydia Thompson
Full backs: Sarah McKenna, Ellie Kildunne

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