Red Roses ponder options against US as Women’s Rugby World Cup looms

England’s 2017 World Cup ended with the players hugging one another, shaking from tears and heartbreak at their failure to defend the title. After the 41-32 defeat to New Zealand the Red Roses watched as their trophy from 2014 was lifted by one of their biggest rivals. Fast forward five years (the extra one due to the pandemic) and Simon Middleton’s England are just 35 days away from launching their bid to avenge that defeat.

On Saturday they face the USA Eagles at Sandy Park, one of two friendlies – the other is against Wales on 14 September – aimed at helping them into their best shape for their revenge mission this autumn. The England head coach says Saturday’s fixture is crucial to their preparation.

“It’s a little bit of a discovery match for us,” he said. “There’s some combinations we want to look at, some individual performances we want to look at and off the back of this we are probably going to make some 50/50 calls on the squad. That is probably the biggest [purpose].

“We’re close [to finalising the World Cup squad] but I would say there are at least four or five calls we have to make.”

Middleton will be able to take 32 players to New Zealand and added he is choosing from a squad of 39, so seven will have to be cut. The squad announcement will take place on 20 September and the Saturday matchday 23 gives some hints as to who the head coach could be deliberating on.

Among the selections is Tatyana Heard, who gets her first cap since 2019 at inside-centre, Claudia MacDonald – who can also play at scrum-half – starts on the wing and returns from a neck injury which almost saw her retire from rugby and Cath O’Donnell is back at lock following an injury lay-off.

This is not just a great opportunity for England to test themselves, it is a challenge for the USA too ahead of the World Cup, particularly as they will be bidding to top their pool. They will face Canada, Japan and Italy in the pool stage and so a friendly against the world No 1 team, no matter the outcome, can only be beneficial.

The USA beat Scotland in a friendly last month and they will be looking to add another victory. There will be some familiar faces with many of the USA players competing at club level in England’s Premier 15s. Their captain Kate Zackary, who plays for Exeter Chiefs, will know the Red Roses well. Zackary’s team head into the match as underdogs – the last time the two teams faced one another England won 89-0 – but the England captain, Emily Scarratt, has said she does not expect a walkover on Saturday.

“The last result was, I’m sure, a very tough one for them,” she said. “They have come on a huge amount since then, I saw their Scotland game last weekend and they played some really good stuff. You can see they have developed in lots of different areas. We know it’s definitely going to be a challenge and it will be a very familiar surrounding for a lot of them [playing at Exeter Chiefs’ home ground]. We’re hoping the Sandy Park crowd gets behind us.”

Fans are expected in their thousands and it is thought there will be a near full capacity crowd at Sandy Park which could see around 13,000 fans in attendance. This is a continuation of the packed stands the Red Roses enjoyed during the Women’s Six Nations and for those fans who cannot make the trip to Exeter, the match will be shown on ITV4 and the ITV Hub.

The players will want to put on a show for the supporters but, more importantly, for their coaches who have their World Cup fate in their hands.