With a lengthy injury list currently ruling out 19 Red Roses players, Simon Middleton has called on the strength in depth of the England squad - as well as the talent in the Allianz Premier 15s - for this TikTok Women's Six Nations campaign.
While the recent injury to Detysha Harper has ruled her out for the remainder of the Championships, head coach Middleton is hopeful Poppy Cleall and Amber Reed - who both sustained knee injuries in England’s win over Scotland - will return ahead of Wales and failing that, the game against Ireland on April 22nd.
In the coming weeks, returns are in the sights of Alex Matthews, Ellie Kildunne, Hannah Botterman, and Maud Muir.
"It’s the prop situation that’s becoming a little bit precarious simply because of numbers. If we can get through this week and get Botts and Maud back for Wales, we’ll be okay," Middleton said.
Bristol Bears prop Simi Pam, who has impressed for a while on the club scene, has been called into the wider squad as a travelling reserve for the game this weekend against Italy at Franklin’s Gardens.
"She’s discussed every time we discuss a squad," Middleton said
"We’ve got such strength and depth across our squad and across the Premier 15s so she’s always discussed. As is Liz Crake, she’s always in, and Mackenzie [Carson] is always being discussed so it was sort of who did we want to go with and she was a little bit unlucky to miss out but she’s got a great opportunity now," he added.
The talent pool that England have at their disposal is something that has been hugely underpinned by the establishment of the AP 15s. The strength of the club competition is shown not only by the depth of the Red Roses but also by the abundance of players from other nations who choose to ply their trade in English rugby's top-flight.
Middleton said: "It’s an unbelievable testimony to where we’ve tried to get the English game to and where we are with it, and why the Premier 15s was brought in. Nicky Ponsford should be very proud of herself for what she did, the initiative she showed to really drive that through because now it’s really starting to bear fruits. We have gone from having a 30+ really high-quality squad to having a 50+ really high-quality squad now and you’ve only seen that get bigger and better."
Marlie Packer, who is now in proud possession of the captain’s armband after Sarah Hunter’s retirement, also praised the Premier 15s talent pool and the efforts of those who have been called up to the England squad.
"It’s a credit to the league and to the player pool that we have. We can call on any player that plays in the league to come in and do a job for us. They come into training and they really raise their own game and for us too. It’s a really good place to be and it’s a really good place for England rugby," she said.
The league also provides England with access to what seems to be never-ending talent, ranging from the U20s level right the way through to the senior level.
Middleton said: "I thought our U20s played outstandingly well last week. Some real talent coming through there which is why we feel confident putting Nancy McGillivray on the bench [as number 24].
"We could have very easily gone for Lizzie Duffy being involved as well. It’s an embarrassment of riches but we’ve had to work hard to do it. We’ve had to put a lot of things in place to do it and it’s a product of a good programme and a good process.”
While the Premier 15s is lauded as arguably the best women's club competition in the world, an area of women’s rugby that is often critiqued is goal-kicking ability. Within the England set-up, Middleton has taken ownership of the fact that they need to provide players with additional support to hone kicking skills.
"We need to be better,” Middleton said. “We’re obviously missing some front-line kickers. It wasn’t great in the World Cup. I don’t think it was great across the board in the World Cup. We’ve got a kicking coach in working with us now. We went down a specific way of nurturing our kickers over the last year. I don’t think it gave us what we want so no we’re definitely not happy with our goalkicking.
"The girls are practising hard don’t get me wrong and they need a bit more support from us and that’s what we’ve brought in. We’re working hard on it, and nobody’s working harder than the girls who have practised three or four times already this week.
"It’s certainly not for the want of effort. We just need to give them a bit more support on it and back up everything they’re putting in with a bit more support from us and that’s what we’ve tried to do over the last couple of weeks so it falls on us, not the players."
With the professionalism of the women’s game in England still relatively in its infancy, Middleton believes that kicking will improve over the years that follow as players begin to reap the rewards of being able to dedicate their time to developing key skills.
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He believes that goal-kicking in the women's game is most likely similar to the position it was in during the first few years of professionalism in the men's game.
He said: "It’s one of those skills, it’s an evolution skill within the women’s game in particular. Because it’s a closed skill, it just takes a lot of practice, a lot of application, a lot of effort and I think it’s not been given the credence it probably deserves over the last probably 10 years but it’s a massive developing part of the game.
"At their best, we’ve got some great kickers. Scaz [Emily Scarratt] kicks the ball brilliantly well, as does Zoe Harrison. We’ve then got a raft of kickers in behind who are working hard to develop their game.
"It’s one of those, a little bit like lineout throwing, you get some right at the top of their game and some have to work a little bit harder on it and that’s where we’re at.
"If you think about the evolution of the men’s game in particular, I’m pretty sure goal-kicking was at a similar stage when they were three years into professionalism. You’re talking about players who were still only training Tuesdays and Thursdays and things like that coming out of that era. It’s a work in progress definitely."