ENGLAND Women’s head coach Simon Middleton says the RFU’s imminent roll-out of professional player contracts has prompted a much altered shake-up of his Red Roses side for their second autumn international test this weekend.
The England head coach has made ten changes from the side that secured a 57-5 victory over the USA last week ahead of the Red Roses’ second Quilter International on Sunday, November 18, which will take place in an unprecedented Yorkshire setting at Castle Park, the home of Doncaster Knights.
With the RFU’s commitment to award 28 professional playing contracts to England Women’s XV’s from January 1 2019, a new playing environment has heralded an opportune reshuffle among the Red Roses’ ranks.
Saracens back rows Poppy Cleall and Marlie Packer will start, while Rachael Burford returns to make her 80th England appearance and Gloucester-Hartpury’s Millie Wood makes her first start on the wing, having previously made her three appearances for the Red Roses at centre.
Sarah Hunter returns at No.8 to captain the side, while Bristol Bears centre Lucy Attwood earns her first start for the Red Roses, having come off the bench in last Friday’s 57-5 win at Allianz Park.
The changed outfit is expected to give Middleton and his backroom staff more food for thought ahead of the milestone decision for the fifteens game – which will be implemented in similar vein to the 20 full-time contracts unveiled for the sevens programme following England’s World Cup crown in 2014.
“We’re going to make a lot of changes to the side. We’ve got a squad, we’re going to use it,” said Middleton, speaking after watching England’s National Academy fall short on against the USA Women’s Selects earlier this week at Newbury RFC.
“We have a lot players we want to have a look at and who deserve to be there.
“There’s some big decisions coming up on contracts in the not so distant future.”
England will be hoping to consolidate on their 57-5 win over the USA at Allianz Park last week – when Katy Daley-McLean wheeled over the whitewash to mark her 100th appearance with a trademark try, (“You couldn’t script it – she’s pretty unique isn’t she?” said Middleton).
This weekend will see Daley-Mclean move to the bench with Saracens’ Zoe Harrison starting at fly half.
Probing new player combinations is not an unfamiliar hobby for the Yorkshireman – who handed 10 players their first caps during England’s three-Test winning series against Canada last autumn, when the 2017 World Cup finalists secured a clean sweep of victories.
Among them were talented youngsters Jess Breach and Ellie Kildunne – both of whom have since switched to the sevens programme on full-time contracts.
But with the RFU’s underlying ambition to gravitate towards a fully-fledged professional XV’s set-up, a repeat of this among the current younger crop of Tyrrells 15s players at Middleton’s disposal is less likely once player contracts are formally phased in.
With a kick-off time at 2pm, England’s fixture on Sunday will coincide with women’s club league games routinely taking place all over the country – with the exception of the Tyrrells 15s, which will continue the following weekend.
Knottingley-born Middleton has been unequivocal in voicing his support at bringing women’s rugby union to his home county of Yorkshire, a country long renowned for its fervent devotion to rugby league.
But staging a women’s international, irrelevant of its geographical location, cannot hide the incidental – and somewhat questionable – scheduling of a women’s international on a Sunday – the same day when the game’s biggest fan base – arguably women themselves – will miss out on watching their idols and a repeat of the 2014 World Cup final.
“I haven’t given it too much thought really,” insists Middleton.
“It’s an international fixture, it’s in a ground that is going to be hopefully full.
“It’s great to go to any ground and play, but there’s a bit to be said about going into grounds where you can fill them up and really get a good atmosphere.
“I have to say, I thought the atmosphere at Allianz Park was really good and the reception the girls got at the end was amazing.
“We’re really looking forward to it. If the crowd are rocking, which we’re anticipating, it will be a great atmosphere.”
Castle Park will also host the Red Roses much anticipated Six Nations fixture against Grand Slam holders France on Sunday 10 February.
The Yorkshire stadium is a fair trip from the Berkshire town of Newbury, where a few hundred spectators gathered to see the England National Academy side in action earlier this week.
The hosts – comprised of several under-20’s internationals and Tyrrells 15s players – slipped to a 25-24 defeat at the hands of an athletic USA outfit, which prompted Middleton to acknowledge the mark that former Saracen’s head coach Rob Cain has already made on the American rugby set-up.
“They’re gutsy. You can see Rob’s brand of rugby on them, particularly on turnover ball,” said Middleton.
“They’re like us in many ways. They’re a team in transition building for a bright future and there’s obviously a significant impact on their fifteeens from their sevens players. We wish them all the best. We want the USA, like every other nation, to be as strong as they can and make it a really competitive international field.”