England were confirmed as Women’s Six Nations champions without playing on Sunday. This weekend, the nation’s men will be out to make it a championship double as their female counterparts target a second successive Grand Slam.
It means that Simon Middleton’s team head to Italy on Sunday looking to convert their title success into a 15th Grand Slam.
A clean sweep is not on the cards for Eddie Jones’ men’s squad, who lost to France in February, but a seventh championship since the tournament became the Six Nations is a possibility.
Ireland lead the men’s table by a solitary point, from England and France, heading into the concluding weekend. Andy Farrell’s side meet Les Bleus in Paris in Saturday’s final match, meaning Jones and England will target a bonus-point win as they take on Italy in Rome.
England have never lost to Italy, but the team’s preparations for Saturday’s match have not been straightforward. Sunday’s warm-up against the Barbarians had to be cancelled, while Jones is without nine injured players for his team’s upcoming fixtures.
On Monday, Jones named a 36-player squad for the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup. Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ali Crossdale, Courtney Lawes, Jack Nowell, Manu Tuilagi and Mark Wilson were all ruled out through injury, while Elliot Daly, George Ford and Joe Marler will only meet up with the squad for reconditioning.
George Kruis, who played in England’s Rugby World Cup 2019 final defeat to South Africa, is also ineligible having departed Saracens for the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan.
It means that the squad picked has an inexperienced feel, with 18 of the players included by Jones having earned less than 10 caps.
“With nine players out injured, it does create some opportunities for the younger guys to show what they can do,” Jones said. “We’re very happy with what we’ve seen in the mini-camps and the Barbarians training week, it’s been really competitive.”
Following England’s assignment against Italy, the team’s focus will retrain on the upcoming Autumn Nations Cup.
Incoming skills coach Jason Ryles, who will join Jones’ coaching staff from newly-crowned NRL champions Melbourne Storm, is scheduled to meet up with the squad ahead of that tournament.
England will open their Autumn Nations Cup campaign against Georgia at Twickenham on 14 November, before matches against Ireland, Wales and an as-yet undetermined final opponent.
Grand Slam hunt
On Sunday, England’s women will look to convert their 16th championship success into a 15th Grand Slam as they take on Italy in Parma.
Red Roses players have been in camp two days a week for the last month but this weekend’s match will be the team’s first since they beat Wales 66-7 at the start of March.
The return of the Premier 15s, though, has provided England’s players with much-needed game time ahead of the conclusion of their Six Nations campaign.
England have never lost to Italy in a women’s test match, and won 42-7 on their previous visit to the Emilia-Romagna region in February, 2018.
Although Middleton’s team will take nothing for granted, there is understandable confidence that a second successive Grand Slam can be achieved.
“Everything that we’re doing is very much focused towards Italy, towards getting to Italy in the first place, and having enough players who are a fit and [COVID-19] symptom-free.
“Once we’re on the pitch, it’ll be play to win — and, of course, win the Grand Slam,” prop Shaunagh Brown told World Rugby.
“[The Grand Slam] would just give another string to our bow as such, to show why women’s sport is a good place to be, why English women’s sport and English rugby is a good place to be, and why people should be coming to watch us and why people should be supporting us.”
Following the conclusion of the Women’s Six Nations, England will play France in away-and-home test matches on 14 and 21 November.
Brown, who marked her 50th Harlequins appearance with a try against Exeter Chiefs last weekend, is grateful to have the opportunity to play amid the ongoing pandemic.
“We recognise this is a privilege because pretty much no one else in the country, relatively, is allowed to play at the moment,” Brown explained.
“We’re not just playing for ourselves, right now. We’re playing for the whole country at club level, because we’re the ones getting to do it while no one else is.”