Having too many in-form players to choose from is a good problem for any head coach and it is one facing England’s Simon Middleton ahead of the Six Nations and postponed World Cup.
Back in September Middleton said England didn’t have a solution to playing without centre Emily Scarratt, who is a regular starter at outside centre. The Loughborough Lightning star broke her leg in the opening minutes of this season which meant she was ruled out of the autumn Tests.
“We have been trying to find a solution to not having Scarratt in our side for a long time,” Middleton said. “We’re closer to it, but our last real close look at that was against France at Twickenham. We weren’t quite ready and we had to bring the players on to sort it out.”
Middleton and England worked hard in the weeks that followed and in the Red Roses’ two matches against New Zealand this autumn they haven’t missed Scarratt’s skill. Holly Aitchison and Lagi Tuima have filled the role well and, with Zoe Harrison’s immaculate kicking, it’s only when the coverage cuts to punditry that you’re reminded Scarratt is to return to the team.
Aitchison was handed her first 15s cap in the opening New Zealand Test. She scored a try and looked as though she had been a part of the team for years. Tuima had to play inside centre for the injured Amber Reed in the first match, competing well, but she got to demonstrate her skills at 13 as a replacement for Aitchison in the New Zealand rematch. While the Harlequins star didn’t look as slick as Aitchison, she played well and proved she deserves a spot on the team.
So with so much talent in the current team, is there room for Scarratt? In a nutshell, there needs to be. But she won’t just walk back into her starting place at 13.
Yes England have been able to play without Scarratt but it is worth noting that it has been in two games against opposition that haven’t had regular international game time in over two years.
When it comes to opposition they haven’t faced in years, like South Africa, or occasions like a World Cup final, the stability and experience Scarratt brings to the side will be invaluable. That’s why Middleton said after Sunday’s record victory over the Black Ferns that there is always room for Scarratt in the team.
But if that’s the case who will be dropped?
Aitchison has to be there with her current form. Being able to slide into the world number one team and play as if you’ve been there for years is exactly what England need. Her awareness to spot opportunities on the pitch ahead of everyone else as well as her speed makes her another great option and the perfect replacement if Middleton starts Scarratt.
Tuima may be muscled out of the 13 role but she can cover or start at inside centre. The same goes for Helena Rowland, who usually she competes at a fly-half but started at inside centre on Sunday.
So the fatality from the team may come from elsewhere in the backs and at the moment it seems Saracens’ Sarah McKenna may get the chop. Saracens’ versatile back, who predominantly plays at full-back, wasn’t included in the matchday 23 when Reed was fit. She only came into the side once Tuima needed to start.
Harlequins’ Ellie Kildunne has claimed the full-back shirt and with other players able to cover the position, McKenna could be the one who misses out.
It will be interesting to see if Middleton alters his selection for England’s closing two matches this autumn against Canada and the USA to see if McKenna, among other squad members, can prove themselves. But sadly some players who are world class will be left behind in this England team because the bar for quality has been raised significantly over the last few years.
This means the competition for jerseys will heat up and that is one thing Scarratt has said she is itching to get back to. “If and when I’m back, I want serious competition and I want to have to fight to get it back. I don’t want things to be easy,” Scarratt said.
And with the way Aitchison, Tuima and Rowland are playing, Scarratt will be given the selection challenge she is after.