Simon Middleton: Sarah Hunter ready for Red Roses bench impact in England’s Six Nations final vs France

Red Roses head coach Simon Middleton has admitted that though skipper Sarah Hunter is disappointed to be starting Saturday’s Six Nations final against France on the bench, she is focused on having an impact when called upon.

Hunter, who has won 124 caps for England dating back to 2007, returned to England duty at No 8 last time out against Italy after 13 months of absence due to a nerve injury in her neck.

The 35-year-old, who is a World Cup winner from 2014 and was named 2016 World Player of the Year, has dropped down to replacements bench for Saturday’s final vs France, however, with England’s outstanding forward in Poppy Cleall returning to the starting XV at the base of the scrum.

“Obviously she was disappointed, because she wants to start every game, she wants to play every game, like any of the players,” Middleton said on Thursday.

“But also she understands the situation in terms of what we think we’re going to need in this game, and where she fits within that in terms of returning to play after such a long absence.

“So very pragmatic about it. She’s disappointed but understands and her main focus now is what her role will be when she comes on the field.”

Named player of the match after England’s Round 1 victory over Scotland, Cleall has really impressed in the No 8 shirt, though Middleton says there is scope to shift figures around within the forwards to potentially get Hunter and Cleall into the same side going forward.

“One of the things we’ve looked at and talked about for a long time is the versatility of the players, particularly our back-five players,” he added.

“So Sarah [Hunter] has played in the second row a little bit, she’s played at No 8, and Poppy [Cleall] has played a lot at second row, at No 6, and at the moment she’s going really well at No 8.

“So we’re fortunate enough, and also the fact that we’ve invested time in creating flexibility across the back-row and across back-five forwards, we’re pretty confident that getting our best payers on the field won’t be a problem in the positions, and certainly Sarah falls into that.

“But at the same time, when we spoke about selection we’re always talking about long term and what the immediate picture looks like, and what Sarah understands is that in the immediate picture, she’s up against really tough opposition and she’s never asked or expected to be selected because she’s captain.

“She plays everything on her merits, she gives everything she’s got and that’s what she’ll continue to do.”

So far in the 2021 campaign – where the format was changed to two pools of three and straight to a final – England have seen off Scotland (52-10) and Italy (67-3) comfortably.

France, meanwhile, have been equally as dominant, crushing Wales in Vannes (53-0) and Ireland (56-15) in Dublin to set up Saturday’s showpiece finale.

Does Middleton believe therefore, such have been the lob-sided nature of scoreboards, that in the preparations for the next World Cup, England would have been better off facing France in a three-Test series?

“No I don’t think so. It’s really important that No 1, the Six Nations or as close to goes ahead in a format with everyone involved in it,” he said.

“You always enjoy playing in the Six Nations, for lots of reasons, but one of which is the diversity of games you play. You’ve got to adapt your game each week, and change it a little bit.

“But fundamentally, you base your game around what you do. So our objective has always been about how we progress through the tournament.

“I think, both games have brought challenges for us if you look. We didn’t go particularly well against Scotland in the second half, they represented a great challenge for us, and Italy in the first half were fantastic, we just couldn’t get the ball off them.

“So from that point of view, I was really pleased particularly with how we went in the second half against Italy, which sounds obvious when you look at the scoreboard but it was something we were looking to do: how can we impose ourselves as we go forward in a game?

“We’re sort of at that point where, we want to know what the next step looks like for us, and we want to know exactly where we are.

“I think this game this weekend is going to give us that opportunity for sure.”

With Hunter beginning on the bench, centre Emily Scarratt captains England this weekend, with the 31-year-old excited the Red Roses find themselves in a final scenario.

“It’s really nice that it is a final. And I’ve said this throughout the week: you don’t get many opportunities to be in finals and to practice that kind of week and the difference that it brings.

“And certainly, when we’re out there on the pitch, there are no second chances in a final, it’s knockout rugby.

“There’s a championship on the line, it is a final, and I don’t think it changes necessary changes the mindset, but it’s really good practice because sometimes you end up in a World Cup final, and you’ve perhaps not been in one for four years.

“So actually to have that opportunity now in this case against one of the very top teams in the world, is going to be really good for us.


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