There are currently three distinct tiers within women’s rugby at the elite level. The largest cluster consists of teams composed of amateurs and semi-professionals battling for survival and recognition. There is a much smaller pool that includes New Zealand, France and, most recently, Wales, who have a smattering of full-time rugby players in their ranks with many relying on short-term retainers.
Away in the distance, all on their own, is England. Their coach, Simon Middleton, can select from 29 players who have no other professional obligation other than winning rugby matches. They have won their last 19 in a row, an unprecedented streak that is in little danger of ending this Sunday against Italy in Parma. Underlining the riches at his disposal, Middleton has made 11 changes to the XV that swept Scotland 57-5 in Edinburgh last weekend without sacrificing on the quality of his team.
Natasha Hunt starts at scrum-half, earning her 56th cap after a 16-month absence. “She’s been walking around with a big smile on her face,” Middleton says. “She’s buzzing. We’re just really thrilled to see her play again.”
The full-back Ellie Kildunne is the only member of the backline who keeps her place from the Scotland game. Helena Rowland shifts to inside-centre having been nudged out by Zoe Harrison who comes in at 10. Emily Scarratt drops to the bench and is replaced by Holly Aitchison at outside-centre.
Poppy Cleall will captain from her preferred position at No 8, with Sarah Hunter named among the replacements. The Harlequins duo Shaunagh Brown and Vickii Cornborough prop up the front row with the teenager Sadia Kabeya starting for the first time this year at openside flanker.
Eight of England’s match-day 23 have yet to lose in an England shirt. With victory all but guaranteed this weekend, how does Middleton maintain standards and reduce the risk of complacency? “Simply because of the competition for places and the intensity we train with and the expectation of performance,” he says. “They have a really good understanding of why they haven’t lost yet.”
Middleton has told his team to “expect the unexpected” against Italy who employ an erratic kicking game from broken play. “They’ve got good skills across their backline, they’ve got some real unpredictability about them,” he says. “We’ve got to really impose ourselves.”
The first 20 minutes may be tight, as it was last year before Scarratt’s 23rd-minute try ignited a 67-3 rout. “That is what you get with a full-time programme,” Middleton says, referencing Italy’s 39-6 loss to France, which saw them concede three tries in the final quarter of the game, as well as England’s win over Scotland.
Last week, Scotland carried the ball on 122 occasions to England’s 108. They had more possession, spent more than five minutes in England’s 22 (compared to England’s 44 seconds in Scotland’s red zone) and bossed the territory battle with 62%. And yet they struggled to break the line.
Credit must go to England’s defence but Scotland will want to prove that they can translate that attacking intent into points against Wales on Saturday. Outside of the final day showdown between England and France, this could be the contest of the tournament as two aspirational teams meet in Cardiff. Wales came from behind to beat Ireland 27-19 and have named an unchanged 23 for Saturday.
Ireland are also unchanged for their trip to Toulouse as they look to build continuity in a squad short of experience. Eimear Considine is the most-capped player with 24 appearances for her country with eight of the starting 15 yet to play in their 10th Test. Such is the reality in the unequal world of women’s rugby.