What we learned from England’s historic win at Ashton Gate
After months of preparation, the England 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.
Victory at Ashton Gate would see England make history as the first men’s or women’s game Test nation to win 25 games on the rebound – but never before have the spotlight on individual player performances been so intense .
“What’s happening with this group at the moment is quite extraordinary, the synergy between the group of players and the coaching staff is absolutely fantastic,” said Middleton, who will then know whether to go for a striker-back split of 19. -13 or 18- 14 for New Zealand. “It’s a very difficult team to integrate.”
Telegraph Sport unpacks some of the major selection issues facing the England head coach.
The scrum-half battle
Middleton described this as one of his “toughest” calls. He will take three number nines to New Zealand, one of whom seems almost certain to be Claudia Macdonald, who can also operate on the wing. 2014 World Cup winner Natasha Hunt is England’s best scrum half by a country mile and adds a different dimension to England’s territorial game. But the fact that Lucy Packer starts against Wales suggests Middleton’s decision is yet to be made. This is certainly the critical moment for the young Harlequins playmaker – if she has a decent run, it’s possible she will overtake Leanne Infante in the pecking order, given that the Saracens scrum-half is not not on the team for the game. The truth is that any of these players, as Middleton went to great lengths to point out, “would go into one of the World Cup squads.”
The headache in the inner center
This is another position that gives Middleton sleepless nights. Whether it’s the fluid rugby of Helena Rowland, the straightforward destructiveness of Tatyana Heard or the defensive coverage and uncontrollable kicking of Amber Reed, this is a position the Red Roses are absolutely saturated with. talent. Rowland’s spot looks secure as she will double as a flyhalf if Zoe Harrison gets injured – but there’s less certainty over who could get the nod between Heard and Reed, the latter having endured a torrid time with injury in recent last seasons.
Which strikers might miss?
Middleton chose their 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 for the selection due to their experience and versatility. Beyond those names, there are plenty of moving parts in England’s well-oiled forward machine.
It’s a bareheaded draw between Bryony Cleall and Shaunagh Brown, while the jury is still out on Morwenna Talling, Cath O’Donnell and flanker Vicky Fleetwood, who didn’t enjoy as much playing time as the youngster. Sadia rising. Kabeya in recent months. Middleton has hinted he will take three throwing specialists – and if young prostitute Connie Powell impresses on the bench on Wednesday, she could do enough to secure a seat on the plane. Such is England’s incredible strength and depth that the Test against Wales – which England are set to win – will only give them more to chew on.