Natasha Hunt returns to Six Nations fold with first England appearance for a year

World Cup winner Natasha Hunt will make her first Red Roses appearance in more than a year after being picked for England’s second-round Six Nations match against Italy in Parma.

Many assumed Hunt’s England career was over when she took a break from the 15-a-side game 12 months ago, before switching her focus to sevens and competing for Great Britain at the Tokyo Olympics.

One of the most respected scrum-halves in the female game, she did not feature in England’s autumn campaign but the Gloucester-Hartpury playmaker has been one of the most in-form nines in the Premier 15s this season.

England head coach Simon Middleton has made no secret of how he intends to rotate his squad for his side’s first three games of the championship and has made 11 positional changes for the visit to Italy, where Poppy Cleall will captain the defending champions and Zoe Harrison returns at fly-half.

After impressing in England’s opening 57-5 win over Scotland last week, lock Rosie Galligan – who Middleton liked to a “silent assassin” – has been given another run out in the second row to earn her third cap. “There’s a lot of changes in the side – the engine room is pretty important for us and we just wanted to make sure we kept some continuity in there,” said Middleton.

There is also a rare start for Shaunagh Brown, who has become a poster girl for women’s rugby, having recently starred in a new Amazon documentary, ‘No Woman, No Try’ about the barriers female players face in the game.

The Harlequins prop has struggled to hold down a place in England’s ferociously competitive squad in recent months and told Telegraph Sport that rule adaptations brought into the women’s game during the pandemic had impacted her ability to scrum – an issue which Middleton confirmed had now been resolved.

England’s fixture with Italy had originally been scheduled to be broadcast on BBC iPlayer due to a scheduling clash with a pre-existing Women’s Super League match, but earlier this week was bumped up to BBC2. “Hopefully it’s not just a reflection of how we play, but a reflection of the first week of the tournament and the quality that’s been in it,” said Middleton.

Analysis – Hunt will inject tempo against an experienced Italian outfit

Hunt, a two-time Olympian and Commonwealth bronze medalist, has been spinning many different plates over the last 12 months. Along with captaining Gloucester-Hartpury in the Premier 15s and having featured for Team GB at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, she has also seamlessly made the transition to the commentary box.

She was behind the mic for England’s autumn campaign last year, perhaps wondering if she would ever pull on a white shirt again. “It would be an honor to play with the girls again, but obviously they’re absolutely bossing it at the moment,” she told Telegraph Sport last November, in reference to the 99-27 aggregate scoreline England recorded over two Tests against world champions New Zealand.

Now, she is back in the frame. Fresh from her stint in sevens, her ability to inject tempo into lackluster games and raise her side’s energy from her has caught Middleton’s eye from her. Expect her to add some ‘X factor’ to England’s attack, which stalled for lengthy periods against Scotland last week. She is also widely regarded as England’s best kicking scrum-half, having executed a variety of 50:22 kicks at club level this season.

Italy, meanwhile, will be enthused by the fight they showed against France last week. Andrea Di Giandomenico’s side held their own with the French for large swathes of their 39-6 defeat, but ultimately lacked execution. They are not lacking in experience, however, with an average 46 caps per player in their squad.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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