England will be without their talismanic scrum-half Natasha Hunt when they go in pursuit of back-to-back Grand Slam titles on Sunday after the Gloucester-Hartpury captain tested positive for coronavirus.
Simon Middleton, the England head coach, said Hunt’s withdrawal from the squad was a “massive disappointment” but hailed the “cast-iron protocol” which she diligently followed to ensure no other players were affected.
Wasps’ Claudia MacDonald will start in Hunt’s place for England’s final match of their disrupted Six Nations campaign at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma, where they will defend their 2019 Grand Slam.
“[Hunt] flagged it as soon as she got an indication that she could have been a contact,” said Middleton. “She was made aware personally through a phone call and then made the medical staff aware and they then took the appropriate steps.
“That’s four times we’ve tested more than 50 staff and players now - that’s pushing 200 tests - and that was just the one, so we’re really confident in our processes.”
England’s Grand Slam decider will be the sole fixture to take place this weekend in the heavily disrupted women’s championship after Ireland's clash with France and Scotland's trip to face Wales in Cardiff were both postponed due to positive Covid-19 tests.
Middleton has handed a debut cap for 18-year-old Morwenna Talling who starts in the second-row, having first been called up to the England camp a year ago after impressing in last year’s curtailed Premier 15s season.
“I remember going to Loughborough [last year] and I was like, ‘Who’s that?’ A voice came from behind me and it was this really big guy. I said, ‘You must be her dad.’ I knew straight away we needed to keep watching her,” said Middleton.
“We wanted to wait until she was 18 ideally, but she typifies everything we’re looking for at the moment in terms of how we want to move our game forward. I didn’t think twice about capping her.”
Ellie Kildunne, one of a host of sevens players to have rejoined the XVs game in the wake of the Rugby Football Union cutting its men’s and women’s sevens programme due to the pandemic, starts at full-back in her first Six Nations match in more than two years.
Middleton conceded he already had a “rough idea” of his World Cup squad with less than a year until the tournament in New Zealand but, with uncertainty over whether the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics in 2021 will go ahead, stressed that sevens players were part of his plans.
“I hope everything works out for them next year in terms of the Olympics,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to add 15, 20 players back into the XVs programme. They’ve all got ambitions to play in the World Cup just as they have the Olympics, that’s an opportunity that exists for them now.”
It remains to be seen whether the Covid-19 outbreak among France’s backroom staff earlier this week will force the cancellation of England’s two autumn friendlies with Les Bleues next month. England are due to travel to France for the first of those on November 14, before a return fixture at Twickenham on November 21.
“I’d probably do Plan B, like Eddie - grab some paper and run upstairs and start scribbling things out,” Middleton quipped, echoing the England head coach’s comments after his side’s Six Nations build-up was affected by the cancellation of their Barbarians match.
“We’ll probably hold training camps. We’re a bit like the SAS, we’re ready to react to anything at a minute’s notice. If the games don’t go ahead, we’ll come up with a plan that goes ahead and keeps us on the field.”
England team to play Italy
Ellie Kildunne (Wasps FC Ladies, 8 caps)
Jess Breach (Harlequins Women, 13 caps)
Emily Scarratt (C; Loughborough Lightning, 89 caps)
Amber Reed (Bristol Bears Women, 57 caps)
Abby Dow (Wasps FC Ladies, 12 caps)
Katy Daley-Mclean (Sale Sharks Women, 114 caps)
Claudia MacDonald (Wasps FC Ladies, 9 caps)
Vickii Cornborough (Harlequins Women, 53 caps)
Lark Davies (Loughborough Lightning, 25 caps)
Sarah Bern (Bristol Bears Women, 35 caps)
Abbie Ward (Harlequins Women, 42 caps)
Morwenna Talling (Loughborough Lightning, 0 caps)
Poppy Cleall (Saracens Women, 40 caps)
Marlie Packer (Saracens Women, 71 caps)
Sarah Beckett (Harlequins Women, 17 caps)
Amy Cokayne (Harlequins Women, 50 caps)
Detysha Harper (Loughborough Lightning, 1 cap)
Shaunagh Brown (Harlequins Women, 17 caps)
Harriet Millar-Mills (Wasps FC Ladies, 55 caps)
Alex Matthews (Worcester Warriors Women, 37 caps)
Leanne Riley (Harlequins Women, 37 caps)
Helena Rowland (Loughborough Lightning, 0 caps)
Zoe Harrison (Saracens Women, 24 caps)