Two years after losing to New Zealand in the 2017 World Cup final in Belfast, England became the first women’s XVs side in the world to turn professional. However glacial such progress may seem from the outside looking in, the RFU have been the trendsetters in this area and should be credited for plowing investment into their women’s team at a time when no other union could be bothered.
Never before has there been this much scrutiny on an England women’s squad for a World Cup – and it is somewhat galling that one of the Red Roses highest profile players has not made the cut.
You wonder what impact Hunt’s absence could have
The omission of the Gloucester-Hartpury captain Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt is one not many saw coming. After briefly stepping away from the international scene in 2020 – seeking a break from the intensity of top-level rugby – the 2014 World Cup winner enjoyed an emphatic return in this year’s Six Nations and installed herself as one of the three nines Middleton would take. There is also the wider squad harmony to consider – Hunt is said to be close friends with Hunter and Emily Scarratt – and you wonder what impact her absence of her could have on the wider team.
That Middleton has chosen to leave Hunt out of his World Cup squad, along with Hunt’s fellow 2014 World Cup victors Vicky Fleetwood and Amber Reed, points to a break up of the old girl band. There is a sense he already has one eye on the 2025 World Cup, which the RFU has earmarked as an opportunity to emulate the Lionesses’ recent Euros triumph with potentially selling out Twickenham for the final.
The inclusion of flanker Sadia Kabeya and the young, dynamic forward, Maud Muir, five-time capped Lucy Packer, up-and-coming hooker Connie Powell and Morwenna Talling, a wrecking-ball of a young lock, is certainly telling. The quartet have an average age of 20, but these whippersnappers will not be thrown in at the deep end in New Zealand. They have been gradually exposed to the rigor of top-level rugby, meticulously nurtured in time for a World Cup and have been firmly rooted in Middelton’s master plan over the past 12 months.
As have others, like Laura Keates, the experienced prop who has parachuted herself into England’s squad out of nowhere. Keates is hardly a household name having, somewhat incredulously, last played for the Red Roses in November 2020, but her excellent scrummaging ability di lei has kept her in the picture.
Things are not always as they should be at RFU
Yet that still is not enough for the 62-time capped international and former World Cup winner – which Middleton last month referred to as a “world-class prop” last month – to have her own profile picture on her player bio on England Rugby’s website .
Such a basic luxury has been afforded to her male prop counterparts, Leicester’s Joe Heyes and Sale’s Bevan Rodd (who have a combined seven Test caps between them). A microscopic yet glaring example of how, when you scratch below the RFU’s glossy dossier for supporting women’s rugby, things are not always as they should be.
Notwithstanding, the RFU’s blueprint for its national women’s side is clearly working. England fly to Auckland on Friday ahead of their opening pool game against Fiji on October 8 armed with a glittering track record: they have won the last three Six Nations. They have not lost a match in more than three years. In Zoe Aldcroft, they count the world’s best player among their ranks.
If they can cope with the pressure, it is their World Cup to lose.