Red Roses Six Nations squad a look to the future by necessity for Middleton’s final act

Simon Middleton steps down as Red Roses coach at the conclusion of the 2023 TikTok Women's Six Nations
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

Heading into his final tournament as England Women’s head coach, Simon Middleton has named a new-look squad for the upcoming TikTok Women’s Six Nations.

Nearly four months removed from finishing as runners-up in the Rugby World Cup, Middleton’s 42-player squad for the tournament included nine uncapped players as the 57-year-old looks to combat an injury crisis and set the side on the path to the 2025 Rugby World Cup which will be staged in England.

Recalling Gloucester-Hartpury’s Natasha Hunt and Sarah Beckett, as well as Bristol’s Amber Reed, Middleton has brought back some experience, while the likes of May Campbell, Kelsey Clifford, Liz Crake, Emily Robinson, Hannah Sims, Elizabeth Duffy, Nancy McGillivray and Ella Wyrwas are unknown quantities at Test level.

After a World Cup, there is that changing of the guard, and it is clear in Middleton’s selection. With Shaunagh Brown having retired, Vickii Cornborough unavailable due to personal reasons and Hannah Botterman injured, there are certainly spots up for grabs in the front-row.

Those are spots which Liz Crake, Hannah Sims and Kelsey Clifford will all be competing for against Sarah Bern, Bryony Cleall and Maud Muir in the weeks to come.

There has also been a spate of injuries at fly-half for England, with Zoe Harrison’s ACL the most recent in a run of worrying knocks for England’s frontline players. With Helena Rowland named in the squad, it is expected that Saracens back Zoe Aitchison will be the go-to playmaker for England.

Sale Sharks and Exeter Chiefs youngsters Elizabeth Duffy and Nancy McGillivray will also be in camp to further their case for selection, the latter having impressed Middleton upon his trip to Lilleshall to observe an England U18 and U20 camp.

It is also clear that Middleton has picked on form. Nine players have been selected from the mightily impressive Gloucester-Hartpury, Beckett and Hunt two of those to have been left out of England’s plans for the World Cup and have since been pulling up trees in the West Country.

May Campbell has been one of the form hookers in the Premiership for several seasons and Harlequins’ Emily Robinson may well have a long future as a versatile back-row forward and Poppy Leitch has enjoyed a resurgent season at lock for Susie Appleby’s Exeter.

“I think although this is a short World Cup cycle, there is going to be a regeneration of the squad,” Middleton said. “Looking at our squad, it probably wouldn’t be that big without some of the injures that we have got. 

“We’ve got a significant amount of injuries, which are all out there. Some fairly high profile names missing. What it does is give us a great opportunity to bring more of the younger players in who have been excelling in the AP15s and some of the more senior players like Ellie Rugman, who have been knocking on the door for a while. 

“It’s a very different squad to what we have named previously. We have had a very consistent squad for quite a long time, but it is a really exciting one to work with. It gives us a great challenge as a management group, a coaching group, because obviously it is not just about the talent, it is probably about the age of the group as well. 

“There is a fair bit of unknown in there for us, and we have seen certainly more than we have worked with in terms of some of the players. We are looking forward to it, but we have still got a massive amount of quality.”

In the Rugby Football Union’s squad announcement, it also became transparent that there is a change in leadership coming too. Middleton referenced that long-time skipper Sarah Hunter said she “will not be involved in the 2025 Rugby World Cup as a player”, the Loughborough Lightning back-row now co-captain alongside Saracens flanker Marlie Packer.

“Sarah has made it plain she won’t be at the next World Cup, she doesn’t intend to go that far,” Middleton said. 

“Marlie has made it plain to me she is going to be at the next World Cup. Marlie has been part of our leadership group for the last couple of seasons. We have been developing her leadership contribution and given some of the players we won’t have with us, there is a lot of leadership there that we won’t have. 

“It was a natural progression for us to look at the leadership group that still existed and how we could build on that, but who is going to really spearhead that when Sarah isn’t on the field, and Marlie did it in the World Cup fantastically well.”

England have a tightrope walk to navigate during this Six Nations. Looking to the future alongside trying to win now has always been a challenge, the injuries across the squad perhaps speeding up the process up a little bit.

Youngsters hoping to push for maiden caps will be helped along by Middleton and the rest of the coaching staff, who will be aided by the injured Emily Scarratt and pregnant Abbie Ward.

Whoever steps into Middleton’s shoes at the conclusion of the Six Nations has an immense job ahead of them. With a home World Cup coming up in 2025, there is much expectation that after two runners-up finishes, England will finish by hoisting a trophy above their heads.

So far, it is just England forwards coach Louis Deacon that will be remaining in the international fold, with attack coach Scott Bemand stepping down alongside Middleton at the conclusion of the coming Six Nations.

The Red Roses kick-off their 2023 Six Nations campaign against Scotland at Kingston Park on Saturday 25 March. 

On the hunt for a fifth title in a row, there is ample motivation for everyone to end Middleton’s time at the helm on a high, as well as potentially unearth some stars of the future.

England Women Training Squad


Zoe Aldcroft (Gloucester-Hartpury, 38 caps), Sarah Beckett (Gloucester-Hartpury, 25 caps), Sarah Bern (Bristol Bears, 52 caps), May Campbell (Saracens, uncapped), Bryony Cleall (Harlequins, 7 caps), Poppy Cleall (Saracens, 63 caps), Kelsey Clifford (Saracens, uncapped), Amy Cokayne (Harlequins, 70 caps), Liz Crake (Wasps, uncapped), Lark Davies (Bristol Bears, 44 caps), Rosie Galligan (Harlequins, 9 caps), Detysha Harper (Loughborough Lightning, 5 caps), Sarah Hunter (CC; Loughborough Lightning, 140 caps), Sadia Kabeya (Loughborough Lightning, 8 caps), Poppy Leitch (Exeter Chiefs, 7 caps), Alex Matthews (Gloucester-Hartpury, 56 caps), Maud Muir (Gloucester-Hartpury, 17 caps), Cath O’Donnell (Loughborough Lightning, 24 caps), Marlie Packer (CC; Saracens, 89 caps), Connie Powell (Gloucester-Hartpury, 7 caps), Emily Robinson (Harlequins, uncapped), Hannah Sims (Harlequins, uncapped), Morwenna Talling (Loughborough Lightning, 5 caps)


Holly Aitchison (Saracens, 15 caps), Jess Breach (Saracens, 24 caps), Abby Dow (Harlequins, 30 caps), Elizabeth Duffy (Sale Sharks, uncapped), Tatyana Heard (Gloucester-Hartpury, 9 caps), Natasha Hunt (Gloucester-Hartpury, 60 caps), Leanne Infante (Saracens, 57 caps), Ellie Kildunne (Harlequins, 31 caps),Claudia MacDonald (Exeter Chiefs, 24 caps), Nancy McGillivray (Exeter Chiefs, uncapped), Sarah McKenna (Saracens, 43 caps), Lucy Packer (Harlequins, 9 caps), Amber Reed (Bristol Bears, 62 caps), Helena Rowland (Loughborough Lightning, 22 caps), Ellie Rugman (Gloucester-Hartpury, uncapped), Emma Sing (Gloucester-Hartpury, 2 caps), Lydia Thompson (Worcester Warriors, 58 caps), Lagi Tuima (Harlequins, 12 caps), Ella Wyrwas (Saracens, uncapped)