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England Women’s Six Nations squad: Five big talking points

England celebrate with the 2023 Six Nations title - England's Women's Six Nations squad: Four big talking points
The Red Roses will be looking to repeat their Six Nations Grand Slam triumph of 2023 - Getty Images/Glyn Kirk

England head coach John Mitchell has named three uncapped players in his Red Roses squad for the Women’s Six Nations, including the surprise pick of flanker Maddie Fe’aunati.

Fe’aunati arrived in Premiership Women’s Rugby five months ago from New Zealand’s top flight, signing for Exeter Chiefs and making an instant impact with her ball-carrying performances.

The daughter of Samoa and Bath forward Issac Fe’aunati, she was born in Leeds and holds a British passport, but courted interest from the Black Ferns after moving to New Zealand to play in the country’s top women’s division. Having turned down a Black Ferns contract earlier this year, the 21-year-old has decided to commit her allegiances to the Red Roses.

The other two uncapped players in the Red Roses 35-player squad are Ealing Trailfinders winger Vicky Laflin and Exeter tighthead prop Lizzie Hanlon.

Emily Scarratt is back despite having played only three hours of rugby since returning from a serious neck injury that left her sidelined for 14 months. Sydney Gregson, a dynamic centre who earned the first of her three England caps as a 19-year-old in the 2015 Women’s Six Nations but has not featured for her country since, has also been selected. The 28-year-old has been one of Saracens’ most consistent players since returning from a 13-month lay-off because of an anterior cruciate ligament injury.

Mitchell, who officially took over the Red Roses at the end of their victorious WXV campaign late last year, hailed the extraordinary amount of depth in the English women’s game and admitted he could have selected “three sides” for the tournament.

Asked whether he could recall a time in his coaching career when he had such depth at his disposal, Mitchell, who coached New Zealand’s men’s team from 2001 to 2003, said: “Probably the All Blacks. Yeah. That’s the last time that I’ve had this opportunity and rugby’s changed a lot since, since the All Blacks, in the men’s game. [Now] they probably don’t have the same depth that I was privy to back then. I’m very grateful to be in the position that I’m in.”

Abbie Ward, the Bristol Bears lock who was among the first to benefit from the RFU’s game changing maternity policy, has also made the cut, as she targets her first international match since becoming a mother last summer.

What do we know about ‘bolter’ Maddie Fe’aunati?

Despite her stop-start season with Exeter Chiefs, she is the headline inclusion in England’s squad. The blindside flanker, who can also operate as a No 8, turned down a Black Ferns contract earlier this year.

She spent most of her childhood in England where her dad was coaching, before moving to New Zealand to play in the country’s Super Rugby Aupiki competition for Hurricanes Poua. Despite not being involved in any of England’s Six Nations training camps, she has been on Mitchell’s radar for a while.

Maddie Fe'aunati - England Women's Six Nations squad: Four big talking points
Maddie Fe'aunati could earn her first cap for England in this Six Nations campaign - Getty Images/Joe Allison

“Maddie is really naturally talented ball-carrying footballer,” said Mitchell. “She can be a really good line-out jumper. We’ve invested in what we think is a very good carrying athlete.

“We’re very fortunate she’s committed to playing for England. She’s always seen the Red Roses as something to aspire to. We’ve been in contact with her family and Exeter around the reasons why she’s gone back. In the end we needed to make sure we had the right commitment.”

Aside from her eye-catching displays for Chiefs, her call-up chimes with Mitchell’s stated aim of looking beyond England’s contracted players when it comes to squad selection. “The door is still open for anyone. That will always remain. I’m always looking for a bolter,” Mitchell told Telegraph Sport last month.

Where does Emily Scarratt fit into midfield plans?

Scarratt, England’s experienced outside centre, has played just 181 minutes of rugby over the past 14 months after requiring surgery for a career-threatening neck injury. On Tuesday, Mitchell confirmed he wanted to utilise the former World Player of the Year – who he described as a “triple threat” – as more of a distributor at inside centre.

Scarratt has already spent all three matches in the position at her club, Loughborough Lightning. “She’s still got challenges ahead to get up to the speed of the game, but if we stage that well, the strength and conditioning team can manage that. We see her as a twelve,” he said.

So where does Scarratt fit into England’s midfield equation? Scarratt has not featured for England since the 2022 World Cup final. Her passing game and all-round skill set remains one of the strongest in the game, but she faces a battle to dislodge Tatyana Heard, a line-breaking midfielder who has started 10 of England’s last 14 Tests at inside centre, from the starting side.

Who will take the keys at number 10?

England’s kicking game – and depth at fly-half – has set the Red Roses apart from other nations in recent years. This year is no different. Zoe Harrison is back in the mix after a year away from the international scene, having ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament in March last year. Holly Aitchison took over as England’s first-choice fly-half and has spoken of her ambitions to make the shirt her own. She grew into the role last year, but there have been times when she has lacked a cutting edge.

Another viable option could be to unleash Helena Rowland, one of the Red Roses’ most versatile backs, in the position. Having formerly been used as an outside centre, Rowland has excelled in the fly-half role for Loughborough Lightning in Premiership Women’s Rugby this season, but Mitchell still sees her predominantly as an outside centre. “She’ll still play 13, that’s her main role, but she’ll revert to 10 in some of the matches,” he confirmed. “Ultimately, we have three fly-halves and they all play in different ways. Helena has the ability to chase a game for us to finish a game for us because of her, her attacking, attacking ability.”

Who will replace Sarah Bern at tighthead?

Bern was ruled out of the tournament weeks ago after sustaining a season-ending injury. Nobody can replace the raw speed provided by the Bristol tighthead, who has cemented her status as one of the best props in the women’s game.

With her 25 Test caps, Maud Muir is the most experienced among the trio of tightheads who have been selected, ahead of Kelsey Clifford and Lizzie Hanlon, the latter who comes from a diving and gymnast background. “They have the opportunity to, to really make the position themselves,” said Mitchell. “I’d like to think that by the time we get to WXV Kelsey and Lizzie are looking at Sarah and going, ‘You’re chasing us’.”

Will Poppy Cleall start after opening-match ban?

There had been a question mark over Cleall’s inclusion after she was a surprise omission from England’s 38-player Six Nations training camp last January, before being called up to the squad’s second training camp at the start of March.

Despite receiving a two-match ban for conduct prejudicial to the game in Saracens’ victory over Leicester Tigers last week – meaning she will miss England’s match on March 24 in Parma – Mitchell confirmed he had seen a “shift” in how the No 8 has applied herself in recent weeks.

Poppy Cleall - England's Women's Six Nations squad: Four big talking points
Poppy Cleall faces a tough battle to regain the No 8 shirt - Getty Images/Alex Davidson

Her place as a starter in the Red Roses’ pack, however, is not a foregone conclusion given how tightly contested the No 8 spot is following Sarah Hunter’s retirement.

Alex Matthews, England’s highly experienced flanker, was deployed in the position for the entirety of England’s victorious WXV campaign. Zoe Aldcroft has also worn the No 8 shirt since Hunter’s retirement, while Sarah Beckett is another candidate who could viably slot into the role given her experience in the position.

Yet throughout her 65 England caps, Cleall has shown to be one of the most resourceful players in England’s pack. Having played lock, flanker and even prop for her country, her versatility counts in her favour.

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