- Acting head coach wants team success as well as individual progress
- Graham Smith awaits tough test from Canada, USA and South Africa
Acting head coach Graham Smith admits there will be a developmental focus to the upcoming Nations Cup, but has also insisted England Women can make a strong bid to retain the trophy in Denver.
Featuring 11 uncapped players, England’s squad is undoubtedly inexperienced. However, the presence of Lichfield back-rower Sarah Hunter as captain should ensure that the newer faces – Under 20 skipper Megan Goddard among them – settle in easily.
Either way, as the first game of the four-team tournament against Canada on Tuesday approaches rapidly; Smith suggested he would find out a great deal about his charges from how they respond to the senior environment.
Indeed, with the 2014 World Cup in France now almost exactly a year away, there is a large onus on improving depth.
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“We’re taking an extended squad of 30, which is unusual for us – normally on these tours we would take 26,” said Smith, who has temporarily taken the reins from Gary Street.
“Nine have experience from this season and from the New Zealand tour, but from the 21 others, we will find out whether they have the potential to kick on for England.
“Gary [Street] and I have been stressing the importance of strength in depth for a number of years now. At the moment we have 51 capped players who could be selected for England and we are trying to make sure that if we have to go to the third or fourth choice player, they will be able to do a job.”
“We have 11 new caps coming on tour – some couple of those have done well for the U20s and are going to have a chance to travel again and prove themselves.
Urging the likes of Hunter and Richmond’s Rowena Burnfield to set standards in training and offer insight into the demands of full international rugby, Smith also outlined the particular threats that Canada, the USA and South Africa will pose.
“Canada and the USA are always physical – have some big athletes,” he explained. “In the recent series between France and the USA [in June], the USA pushed them very close. The final score was 2-1 to France, who brought a very strong side.
“That was very tight so we are under no illusions as to how difficult this is going to be. South Africa have had some recent success on the sevens circuit as well, and while their forwards have traditionally lacked a bit of fitness, they hit very hard.”
Over the next three weeks, Smith will rekindle his successful coaching partnership with Simon Middleton. The pair last took charge of the side together in last May’s European Championship in Italy, which saw England Women triumph by beating France 29-25 in the final.
And though both men will be gauging individual progress carefully, there will be no lack of desire to add a second successive Nations Cup to the trophy cabinet.
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“Midds works with Gary and myself on a regular basis during training camps,” Smith added. “He’s got a very good skill-set as a coach and is really engaging with the players, who like him a lot.
“This tour is there to help individuals develop, so individual performance is key. But Midds and I are old school, competitive people. We don’t like to do anything by half and we certainly don’t like to lose, so while we recognise the aims of the tour, we’ll also be looking to win.”