Aafter months of preparation, the English players have one last chance to raise their hands for a place in Simon Middeton’s 32-man World Cup squad when they face Wales tonight.
A win at Ashton Gate would make England history as the first Test nation of the men’s or women’s game to win 25 games on the vault – but never before has the spotlight on individual player performance been so intense.
“What is happening with this group right now is quite extraordinary, the synergy between the group of players and staff is absolutely fantastic,” said Middleton, who will know in hindsight whether to opt for a 19-13 forward-backs split. or 18-14 for New Zealand. “It’s a very difficult team to get into.”
Telegraph Sport tackles some of the key selection issues facing the England head coach.
The scrum half battle
Middleton has described this as one of his “toughest” calls. He is taking three number nines to New Zealand, one of which will almost certainly be Claudia Macdonald, who can also operate on the wing. Natasha Hunt, winner of the 2014 World Cup, is England’s best kicking scrum half a kilometer away and adds another dimension to England’s territorial game. But the fact that Lucy Packer will start against Wales suggests Middleton has yet to make a decision. It’s definitely time for the Harlequins young playmaker – if she has a decent run out, there’s a possibility she might rise just above Leanne Infante in the pecking order, as the Saracen scrum half isn’t in the squad for the encounter. The truth is that one of these players, as Middleton has gone to so much trouble to point out, “would walk into one of the squads at the World Cup.”
The headache in the middle
This is another position that gives Middleton sleepless nights. Whether it’s Helena Rowland’s free-flowing rugby, Tatyana Heard’s direct destructiveness or Amber Reed’s defensive cover and kicking, it’s a position in which the Red Roses are absolutely imbued with talent. Rowland’s spot looks secure as she’ll act as a fly-half if Zoe Harrison gets injured – but there’s less certainty about who can get the kink between Heard and Reed as the latter has endured a scorching time with injuries in recent seasons .
Which attackers could miss?
Middleton has picked his strongest front three to start against Wales in Vickii Cornborough, Lark Davies and Sarah Bern. Zoe Aldcroft, Poppy Cleall, Captain Sarah Hunter and Abbie Ward are favorites of the roster for their experience and versatility. In addition to those names, there are many moving parts in England’s well-oiled forward machine.
It’s a toss-up between Bryony Cleall and Shaunagh Brown on tighthead, while the judges are still out on Morwenna Talling, Cath O’Donnell and flanker Vicky Fleetwood, who hasn’t enjoyed as much playing time as the up-and-coming Sadia Kabeya in recent months . Middleton has hinted that he will take three throwing specialists – and if young hooker Connie Powell impresses off the couch on Wednesday, she may do just enough to secure a spot on the plane. England’s incredible strength and depth is so great that the Test against Wales – which England should win – will only give him more to chew on.