Exclusive: England’s Holly Aitchison on becoming a Red Roses regular

Holly Aitchison scored a try in England's TikTok Women's Six Nations opener
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

It was in late-October last year when Holly Aitchison made her Red Roses debut against New Zealand at Sandy Park. 

In the months prior the Saracens back had represented Team GB at the 2020 Olympic Games, her campaign ending in a bronze medal match defeat at the hands of Fiji at Tokyo Stadium.

Like so many of her teammates, Aitchison dropped to the floor at the conclusion of the 14 minutes, no one having been able to do anymore on their hunt for a top-three finish.

GB’s journey to Japan had been fraught with its own challenges, with athletes from England and Wales released from their contracts in the midst of the global pandemic, funding for their sojourn to the east coming from a series of sponsors and The National Lottery.

Fast forward to less than five weeks later, Aitchison was lining up in the Allianz Premier 15s opening round for Saracens. 

In the domestic season prior, the 24-year-old has pulled on the club’s jersey 11 times, her versatility vital at times to Alex Austerberry.

Since leaving education at the age of 18, 15-a-side rugby had rarely featured in Aitchison’s life, spells playing the full format of the game coming whilst at Hartpury, as well as a short spell at Lichfield.

For six years sevens was very much the leading light for the back, who made over 70 appearances for England and scored 259 points.

Such was Saracens’ and Aitchison’s start to the season, Simon Middleton called the uncapped centre into his squad to take on New Zealand, the USA and Canada on home soil.

Along with the likes of Maud Muir, Heather Cowell and Sadia Kabeya, Aitchison debuted for her country and is now becoming part of the furniture in Middleton’s world-beating side.

Those Autumn internationals were impressive for a variety of reasons. A month prior, Emily Scarratt had broken her leg playing for Loughborough Lightning, a place in midfield very much up for grabs.

The Black Ferns hadn’t played a game in two years and England registered two record victories over the team expected to be their biggest rivals at the end of this year, Aitchison amongst others staking a claim for a regular starting spot.

“During the autumn, there was a massive focus on exploration,” Aitchison said. “With the likes of Scaz, big players not playing, and the big opportunity against New Zealand, which doesn’t come often, we were told initially that this was going to be an exploration and not worry about the results.

“I think we surprised even ourselves with the results and how that went. No one expected us to get that big of a scoreline, and I think everyone in the debrief was just focussed on how positive that campaign was.

“A year to go until a World Cup, we have put a huge marker down against New Zealand and there was nothing we felt we could have done more of. We had explored lots of different channels, people got opportunities to play against the second-best team in the world that you will be able to play against before you go to a World Cup.”

Now the TikTok Women’s Six Nations is the final leg of the journey before the passengers who will be boarding flights to the southern hemisphere are confirmed.

Vying for their fourth Six Nations title in a row, England began the protection of their hat-trick of crowns with a 5-57 win over Scotland at the DAM Health Stadium, Aitchison scoring one of nine England tries.

“When you go into any game, you know that nothing is going to be perfect,” Aitchison said. “I guess that is also the beauty of having things to work on all the time.

“I think even though we are number one in the world, you know that as a team and as an individual, there is always things you can work on and the potential we have is crazy.

“We are not expecting to be the finished article yet, and we know that we have got quite a bit of time to go before the World Cup, so I think it was more a nerve settler than anything else.

“We were really happy with the scoreline and naturally you are going to be frustrated with some of the performance. Mids [Simon Middleton] said at the end of the game, you have got to think that they are a decent team in their own right.

“We don’t want to underestimate either, and everyone was happy with that scoreline, and it is a nice nerve settler, where you are going into a big tournament, and you know France are at the end of that block.”

Playing with idols

Starting her rugby journey with Waterloo Ladies, the 24-year-old an age grade above England back-row Sarah Beckett, Aitchison was coached by former England international Gill Burns whilst at Range High School before moving to Gloucestershire and Hartpury.

Teammates in that small corner of the West Country were Zoe Harrison and Ellena Perry, the back from Merseyside the youngest of that trio, the midfield partnership between Aitchison and Harrison rekindled for club and country in recent months.

It was not as if the prospect of trying to obtain Red Roses caps hadn’t come up in the past, the only question being where Aitchison would play.

“We [Middleton and Aitchison] had spoken briefly, because I was debating the opportunity post-summer, and I just said a similar king of question of ‘where do you guys see me?’, because I didn’t really know where I saw myself,” Aitchison laughed.

“He kind of said 10, 12, 13 and 15. That is quite wide, but I wasn’t really that phased by that, because I hadn’t really played 15s for four years, they didn’t really know either. So it would be an exploration.

Aitchison idolised Emily Scarratt when coming through the ranks
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

“I had played a bit of Prem [Women’s Premiership] rugby when I was at Hartpury and for Lichfield, and I played at 13 and at 10 when I was growing up, so I think naturally they would be positions that I would waver ore towards.”

Watching on as a fan in 2014 when England won the Rugby World Cup in Paris. Beating Canada in the Final, Aitchison like so many was inspired by the efforts of Gary Street and Graham Smith's team.

Excelling at age grade level to the point that the England Sevens setup offered her a contract straight out of school, Aitchison says that the ambition of playing at a World Cup never ended, but the possibility of being an Olympian was her main priority.

“I always wanted to go to a World Cup with this group of players,” Aitchison said. “Like the Scaz’s, the Marlie’s, the Sarah Hunter’s, not like there wouldn’t be anything in the future, but I could see a team that I wanted to be a part of, that could potentially have this ‘greatest in history’ tag, with that calibre of player.

“I definitely thought about it and there were a few conversations here and there with Mids, but I said very clearly when I was 18 that I really wanted to go to Tokyo, and I wanted to go to an Olympics as young as I could.

“I think post-Tokyo, it was always a question of ‘can I make the turnaround with no pressure on me’, because I had never been part of the setup.

“It was definitely in my head, but my biggest focus until the final whistle in Tokyo, was Tokyo, that was everything to me.”

In the years that have followed, Aitchison has been able to call several of those World Cup winners in 2014 teammates. Heather Fisher was just one, the back-row forward having been a part of the England Sevens setup until injury ruled her out of Tokyo.

Mo Hunt was part of Team GB’s campaign last summer also, Aitchison having followed in the footsteps of Hunt and others in a more direct sense in playing for Lichfield Ladies, the same team that Emily Scarratt, Harriet Millar-Mills, Vicky Fleetwood and Sarah Hunter plyed their trade for, prior to the Premier 15s' introduction.

Joining the team when several senior players were away pursuing a place at the 2016 Olympic Games, a teenage Aitchison taking the place of the player she idolised the most, a player she now shares the midfield with at Test level.

“If you asked me who was my biggest role model or someone I really looked up to, it was always Scaz,” Aitchison said.

“I wanted to be Scaz. I was literally obsessed. That year I went to Lichfield, she was in the sevens programme, and I wore her shirt that year. 

“One time they had a weekend off and she was just in the changing room, I was just saying ‘oh my god’, freaking out, I didn’t know what to do, asking if it was rude that I was in her shirt.

“All of these things were going around my head, and I think I am still a bit in awe of her and everything that she has achieved.

“But you have also got to think that you have been put in the same team for a reason. It is unreal that we get to learn off people like that, but you have to think that you are going for shirts in the same team, and that is unreal for me as well.”

Points of difference

2014 was very much laid the foundations of the Red Roses that we see today. Two years after their World Cup title, professional contracts were first introduced in the 15-a-side game, the sevens programme having been full-time for just a little longer.

It is these full-time contracts that set England aside from all the rest, Aitchison for one having known nothing other than being a professional rugby player for the entirety of her adult life.

“I feel really lucky, because I am the first gen to only know professionalism straight out of school, and how those contracts in turn have created these opportunities, not only the on-pitch stuff, but how we have been given the opportunity to be that generation,” Aitchison said.

England play Italy this weekend as they look to break the record for the longest winning streak in Test rugby
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

“You have got this golden generation of players like Scaz, but England and the RFU have given us the opportunity to create more generations of those players, and hopefully we will be able to with the funding, and I hope other countries come along with us with that professional funding.

“I think that is the biggest thing working to our advantage at the moment, the amount of contracts that we have and, equally, how long people have been professional for.”

It is being full time and the RFU’s continuing investment in the women’s game that also led to their unbeaten having stretched to 19 games following last weekend’s win over Scotland. 

Through winning the rest of their games this Six Nations, England will match the longest Test rugby winning streak of 23 games, a game set by an England women’s team that ruled the roost between 1992 and 1997.

“We actually had a meeting about it last week, just before we started the campaign, because I don’t think that they thought too much about it,” Aitchison said.

“They were aware, but they didn’t know how much media attention was going to be brought to it. Mids kind of talked everyone through game by game, what record we would break and what it would all mean. 

“We spoke about it, more from a point of view of what we want to be remembered as. ‘The greatest team in history’, that is what we would become if we have the perfect year. But we also said that this is the first time we will speak about it, and we won’t reference it for the rest of the campaign.

“Everyone knows what we could achieve, but the main thing I have got from 15s is how amazing they are at taking things game by game. So, we are not looking to the France game right now, we are looking to the weekend and then we will think about that later on.”

Whilst Aitchison may be part of one of rugby’s most prolific teams, her family are a grounding influence. 

Her dad, Ian, is a former England U20 and England Saxons player, whilst brother, Ben, is a right-handed quick at Derbyshire CCC, the duo quick to their opinions whenever Aitchison makes her way back to Liverpool.

It is this influence that helps give the 24-year-old a wider perspective on the game. In the past, Aitchison has been an advocate for equal pay, whilst the greater future of the game is also something spoken about within the group.

With more coverage and exposure than ever before, the future has never been brighter in women’s professional sport, the Six Nations having a title sponsor, while Barcelona and Real Madrid recently set the world record attendance at a women’s football match.

In the case of Aitchison, she is hoping to be a role model, and the way things are playing out, there probably aren’t many better.

“I think naturally that is an expectation for anyone in the shirt, to leave it in a better place than when you found it,” Aitchison said.

“I think I feel a responsibility to, not change a stereotype and not make it accessible – because it is – but inclusive. We were probably part of a generation where it wasn’t frowned upon, but it wasn’t girly to play rugby growing up.

“It wasn’t ballet, it wasn’t the thing to say I was most proud of doing. I feel a bit of responsibility to make it mainstream, so say you can play rugby, that’s normal for a girl and that stereotype to be removed, that is one of the things that I would like to happen, and I think we are seeing that happen a little bit more.

“Me and Zoe [Harrison] were talking about it, and seeing participation increase naturally, but also not have the stereotype of the type of person coming in to play rugby and having that as a more inclusive space.”