'With the regeneration and getting new players in, we are trying to explore a little bit more' - Future proofing the Red Roses

Sarah Bern starred for England in their recent win over Italy in the TikTok Women's Six Nations
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

As Simon Middleton nears the end of his time as Red Roses head coach, it would have been easy for him to put all of his focus on the final five games of his tenure before bowing out in front of what is set to be a record-breaking crowd at Twickenham against France on April 29th.

In reality, Middleton has not only put thought into the task at hand for the TikTok Women's Six Nations, but he has also put in place systems to ensure the team are in the best place possible when the time comes for England's new coach to take over.

During the World Cup, England were criticised for relying on the forwards and the driving maul, in particular, to provide them with tries. This continued for the first game of the Six Nations against Scotland, where seven of their 10 tries were delivered by their pack.

In Round Two in a 68-5 win against Italy, 10 of England’s 12 tries came from the backs, with four for full-back Abby Dow, a hat-trick for Jess Breach, a brace for Claudia MacDonald, and a score under the pots for Tatyana Heard. A further two tries came from captain Marlie Packer.

Sunday’s win against Italy showed a different dimension to England’s play than the one that was previously criticised both in the autumn and last week.

Holly Aitchison, who has stepped into the fly-half position recently for England said: "Definitely the feedback from the World Cup was to go a little bit more expansive.

"I think we were a lot more regimented at the World Cup relying heavily on structure so I think with the regeneration and getting new players in, we are trying to explore a little bit more and give a bit more power to the backs. I think we often scored a lot of tries with credit to that amazing driving maul but we are now showing that obviously us backs are stepping in as well."

Dow, who was electric against Italy and is Aitchison’s roommate while on England camp, credited the mindset of departing coach Middleton to ensure that the team are prepared for wherever the future takes them.

She said: "I think it's also Midds doing a great job of giving a platform. With him departing at the end of the Six Nations, it's very easy that he could go out in a certain way but actually what he's doing is, whoever takes that role, is giving a platform of 'this is all the opportunity that you have with this team' and it's just an absolute credit to him."

Aitchison has taken on some kicking responsibility in this campaign, and as Middleton previously mentioned, England have been providing some extra support for their kickers. The introduction of a kicking coach in the England camp is something that will further ensure the progression of the team long after Middleton steps down.

"Alex came in four weeks ago and he's essentially taken me from the ground up if I'm completely honest. I've not had a load of kicking experience anyway as I've said so he's essentially given me a routine. I used to kick off a cone embarrassingly! I'd literally just use a cone out of a bag, it's rustic," the 25-year-old Saracen said with a laugh.

"He was just kind of testing out different tees, seeing what I was comfortable with and then setting up a proper routine which was quite nice. I'm just trying to listen to what he said, focus on a few things rather than a load of things and hopefully, that'll pay dividends later down the tournament," she added.

Aitchison isn’t the only player who is playing relatively out of position for this tournament. As Sarah Hunter stepped off the field for the final time two weeks ago, and Poppy Cleall was ruled out through injury in the same fixture, a gap was created at number eight.

Such is the strength and depth of the England squad that this position could be smoothly filled by none other than the World Player of the Year for 2021, Zoe Aldcroft. The dynamic Gloucester-Hartpury forward commonly plays as a lock but stepped up and comfortably filled the number eight position for England, as she has done previously for her club.

While not a recent change in position, tighthead forward Sarah Bern was once a back, playing all of her under-18s career as a centre before moving to the back row for under-20s, and finally converting to the front row. Her past as a back is hardly surprising when you watch her play. This versatility of many of England’s players is also something which will be of benefit to them both now and into the future.

Teammate Dow said: “She's got that rugby player mindset of being able to use her feet instead of using brute strength that she already innately has. With that, she's able to hold her feet, you're able to take your timings off her and she's able to manipulate space for you as well. Even though she could easily run over the person in front, she's just got a great mindset to actually play with us in the width."

Breach, who scored three past Italy on Sunday, stressed just how important it is to have the versatility of a player like Bern in their ranks.

She said: "I think it's good that we can have our forwards in those channels. Just because she's got three on the back of her shirt doesn't mean that she can't play in the outside channels and I think that's what we're trying to show as England that it doesn't matter what number you've got, as long as you've got good catch pass skills anyone can fill anywhere."

Middleton was equally full of praise for Bern, who was the joint second top try scorer in the Six Nations last year and made a combined total of 317 metres across the Championship.

The head coach said: "Our fourth back three player. We work a lot on holding our shape. It’s not just about our backs being on the edge. We promote trying to get our forwards on the edge.

"We try to get our most dangerous runners in space and Bern is one of them. We don’t paint by numbers. It depends who is in that area. She likes running in space. It suits us fine. She’s such a destructive player when she’s got the ball in her hand. She’s such a good decision-maker. She’s going to scrummage in the middle and run with the backs on the edge - that will be it now."