Sarah Hunter to lead strong England squad at Women’s Rugby World Cup | England women’s rugby union team
England’s head coach, Simon Middleton, says his record-breaking squad will feel like failures if they do not emerge victorious at the forthcoming Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Middleton has now confirmed his 32 players for the tournament, led for the third successive edition by the vastly experienced Sarah Hunter.
With the Red Roses already established as the first side in history to win 25 successive Tests they are clear favourites to become world champions for the first time since 2014. There is such strength in depth that established figures such as Natasha Hunt and Bryony Cleall have failed to make the cut and Middleton admits that flying back home without the trophy is not an option.
“We’ve got to win it,” said Middleton, whose side fly out at the end of this week. “This is the best prepared squad with the best strength in depth we’ve ever had. We are as ready to go as we could be. That doesn’t mean we will win it. The one thing you can’t guarantee is that you’ll win it because it doesn’t work like that.”
The Black Ferns’ new head coach, Wayne Smith, has been talking up England and even suggesting they are three years’ ahead of all their rivals in terms of their professionalism. Middleton is more than happy for his players to accept the mantle of favouritism but is not about to be lured into a false sense of security by his opposite number.
“We might be three years ahead of some of the players he’s brought in, but certainly not most of the squad. They’ve got more World Cup winners than we have, so I’m not having that! We’ve got a lot of young kids in this group. Point that out to Wayne Smith!”
Middleton also remains keenly aware that sport is never entirely predictable. “Look at Argentina’s men beating New Zealand in New Zealand for the first time or Andy Ruiz knocking out Anthony Joshua when he ain’t got a chance,” he cautioned. “Or, going back to when I was playing, Wimbledon beating Liverpool.
“Everyone’s got a chance in sport, that’s the beauty of it. What you’ve got to do is prepare your very best and try to deliver your best performance when it matters. You’re never going to get a 100% performance, but if we can get as many people playing as close to their best when it matters we’ll be in a good spot.”
Harlequins’ Lucy Packer and Worcester’s Laura Keates are the two biggest selectorial winners, having been preferred at scrum-half and prop respectively to Hunt and Cleall. Middleton suggested Packer’s selection was largely down to the specific quick-ball tactics England are keen to employ, while Keates’s scrummaging ability has earned her a recall as potential specialist front-row cover.
There is also a place for winger Abby Dow, still recovering from a broken leg sustained against Wales in April. The Wasps flier has been making a remarkably swift recovery and is even hopeful of being available for England’s opening game against Fiji on 8 October.
“There’s still a little bit to go but she’s ahead of where we thought she would be,” said Middleton. “It’s refreshing to say that because it’s been a really tough ride for her. She’s looking in great shape, her attitude is fantastic and she can’t wait to play. If we can get her on the park and something near her best form, we know we’ll have a cutting edge.”
Nineteen members of the group will be playing in their first World Cup but Hunter and her vice-captain Emily Scarratt will both be featuring in their fourth tournaments. Hunter, with 135 Tests to her name, is now just a couple of caps short of Rocky Clark’s all-time record and Middleton says her leadership ability is still improving. “Sarah is a better captain now than she has ever been. She has owned the captaincy and how she represents the squad is absolutely brilliant. Her pride in and love of representing her country is as strong as ever. She is a class act and we are very fortunate to have her leading the side.”
As well as Fiji, the Red Roses also have pool matches against France and South Africa. All their games will be available to watch on ITV and covered minute-by-minute on theguardian.com/sport, with the final in Auckland on 12 November .