England v Scotland Preview: 'The impact Sarah has had on the game has been forever changing'

England will say goodbye to Sarah Hunter at Kingston Park as they kick off their Six Nations defence
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

The final showdown for one of England’s greatest-ever players. 

Sarah Hunter will take to the field for the Red Roses for one final time, aptly at her home ground, a sold-out Kingston Park in Newcastle.

England’s most capped player, and the most capped female player ever globally, will bow out of international rugby leaving behind an unforgettable legacy.

Summarising the sheer magnitude of Hunter’s impact on not only rugby but on sport as a larger entity, in particular women’s sport, is something that no words will ever do justice to.

Both as a player and in her role as a captain she’s set an outstanding example, and one that will remain etched in the memories of many is the way she carried herself following their loss to New Zealand in the most recent World Cup.

A true leader through and through, humble in her victories and gracious in her defeats.

"It is a phenomenal story," Loughborough Lightning Director of Rugby Rhys Edwards tells TRU. "The impact she has had on the game has been forever changing. That generation of player like Katy Daley-McLean etc, they have changed the women's game for the better. She has done that by leading by example.

"Her performances have always been out of the top draw and she just sets the standard really of how to go about her business. She has only been professional for sort of the past four years in terms of being financially rewarded, but she has been professional since day one in terms of behaviours and her longevity is off the back of that as well.

"She has come back from the World Cup after a bitterly disappointing World Cup final personally and even then, she was putting in some world-class performances in the Premiership but that is what she is like."

Before the farewells and celebrations fully commence after the final whistle, England must first face Scotland. The last time the two sides met at the Six Nations, England produced a dominant 57-5 winning performance, with a hat trick from Marlie Packer and further tries from Poppy Cleall, Heather Cowell, Abby Dow, Leanne Infante, Hollie Aitchison, and Connie Powell.

For the first time in 30 games, England go into this game without the momentum of a winning streak on their side. However, this could prove to be a galvanising factor as they start their Six Nations title defence campaign.

Dow (Harlequins) starts at fullback, while Jess Breach (Saracens) and Claudia MacDonald (Exeter Chiefs) occupy the wings. Amber Reed (Bristol Bears) returns to the team following her omission from the World Cup squad and partners with Lagi Tuima (Harlequins) in the centre.

With fly-half Zoe Harrison sidelined for the rest of the season with an ACL injury, England have had to get creative when choosing their number 10.

Aitchison (Saracens), a versatile back who plays most of her games at centre, has been selected at fly-half, with the ambition to play at either position something that has been a topic of conversation between Simon Middleton, herself, and club head coach Alex Austerberry. Lucy Packer (Harlequins) starts at scrum half, earning her 10th cap.

In the front row, recent call-up to the squad Mackenzie Carson (Saracens) makes her debut. Due to World Rugby’s birth right transfer rules Carson, who was previously capped for Canada, was available for selection after completing a three-year standdown period and qualified to play for England through her English mother.

Amy Cokayne (Harlequins) and Sarah Bern (Bristol Bears), both formidable try scorers, complete the trio at hooker and tight-head.

Gloucester-Hartpury’s Zoe Aldcroft and Saracens’ Poppy Cleall make a strong lock pairing with 101 caps between them. With Hunter’s departure leaving a gap at the back of the scrum following this game, the number eight shirt will be thrown into the mix. 

"There will be a certain hole in the game for a while now she is not playing," says Edwards who is still looking forward to Hunter adding her coaching expertise to the Lougborough set-up.

Aldcroft has tried her hand at playing at eight for Gloucester-Hartpury and has impressed when doing so, and could be an option in the future if Middleton chooses to use her there.

Sadia Kabeya (Loughborough Lightning) switches to the blindside, while Marlie Packer (Saracens) takes the number seven shirt alongside the co-captaincy. Hunter (Loughborough Lightning) takes to the field in an England shirt for one final time as number eight and shares the captaincy privileges with Packer.

Edwards adds: "You think of the journey of where it started and where it finished, Sarah has mentioned a few times this week, sometimes you can't choose where you end and the opportunity for her to do that makes it more special doesn't it? It adds another layer to it and she derseves it more than anybody I think."

On the bench, Liz Crake (Wasps), Kelsey Clifford (Saracens), and Ella Wyrwas (Saracens) are set the make their debuts.

Opposition Scotland come off the back of their first appearance at the World Cup in 12 years looking to make an impact on the Six Nations and avoid further repeats of their characteristic narrow losses of late.

Last Six Nations was disappointing for Scotland, who finished at the bottom of the table having lost all of their matches. With their recent contract announcement for 28 players a positive boost for the squad, it may take some time before we fully see the effects of a solidified professional Scotland side.

The gaps in performance between the few professional women’s international sides and the majority of teams they face have often been stark in the past, with England a marker of how performance can be transformed once teams are given the funds and resources needed to thrive.

The introduction of more professional contracts to the women's game is something that will provide a higher level of competitiveness over time, something that has been greatly longed for, allowing players to devote more of their time to rugby.

However, with plenty of new and returning faces in their opposition, Bryan Easson’s Scotland will look to confidently start their campaign off on the right foot, and many of the players from the Allianz Premier 15s clubs will be familiar with their Red Roses counterparts having played with or against them at club level.

Key players Sarah Bonar and Jade Konkel-Roberts(both Harlequins) are unavailable for selection through injury, however, it is hoped that they will return later in the championship.

Loughborough Lightning’s Rachel Malcolm and Helen Nelson return as captain and vice-captain respectively, with Malcolm in the back row and Nelson pulling the strings at fly-half.  Francesca McGhie (Watsonians) makes her debut on the wing and from the bench, Beth Blacklock (Harlequins) looks set to make her inaugural first team appearance. On the other wing, Coreen Grant (Saracens) makes her first start, earning her second cap.

The centre partnership is made up of Emma Orr (Heriot’s Rugby/Biggar) and Meryl Smith (University of Edinburgh), who have a combined total of 10 caps between them. In fact, the wings and centres have a total of only 11 caps. 

In contrast, Loughborough Lightning’s Chloe Rollie and only scorer in their last meeting with the formidable Red Roses starts at full-back and adds a wealth of experience to a relatively new backline, earning her 53rd cap. Controlling the game at scrum half is Caity Mattinson (Worcester Warriors). 

Scotland’s starting ranks are further bolstered by Loughborough players in the scrum, with Leah Bartlett and Christine Belisle linking up either side of Worcester Warriors hooker Lana Skeldon to form the front row.

Lyndsay O’Donnell (Bristol Bears) and Louise McMillan (Saracens) are named as locks. Rachel McLachlan (Sale Sharks) starts on the blindside, while Evie Gallagher (Worcester Warriors) completes the pack at number eight.