Captain Sarah Hunter returns to England starting line-up

Sarah Hunter will lead England for the first time in 13 months when England meet Italy in the Women’s Six Nations this Saturday.

The Red Roses captain has missed time for Loughborough Lightning with a hamstring and neural injury to her hand in the Premier 15s, but will win her 124th cap in Parma – the scene where England celebrated their Six Nations triumph last November.

Hunter is part of an entirely new back row selected by head coach Simon Middleton from the 52-10 win over Scotland in the opening round, with Poppy Cleall and Marlie Packer dropping out of the starting line-up while Zoe Aldcroft reverts to the second row.

Flankers Alex Matthews and Vicky Fleetwood join Hunter at the rear of the scrum, as Cleall drops to the bench.

Gloucester-Hartpury forward Aldcroft aligns with Cath O’Donnell in the England engine room, meaning Abbie Ward misses out on selection.

Ahead of them in the scrum, Vickii Cornborough stays at loosehead but Amy Cokayne and Shaunaugh Brown come in to form an all-Harlequins front row.

England will arrive at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi searching for their 13th-straight win in the Six Nations. Any suggestion that Middleton might experiment at fly-half following the retirement of Katy Daley-Mclean appears unlikely.

After starting at Castle Park last weekend, Helena Rowland retains her place and will be partnered again by Leanne Riley in the half-backs.

Competition doesn’t prevent Wasps fly-half Meg Jones from getting her chance to impress, albeit from the No.12 jersey to partner vice-captain Emily Scarratt in the midfield.

Jones’ club teammate Ellie Kildunne is also promoted from the bench in place of Sarah McKenna, while Lydia Thompson is replaced by Abby Dow.

Head coach Simon Middleton said: “I was really pleased with aspects of our game against Scotland and I thought we were outstanding for the majority of the first half.

“The frustrating part was that we got ourselves into a position where we wanted to be in the game but then didn’t kick on. The ability to sustain a high level of performance for the majority if not all of the game is the thing we are working towards in training, so to put in a great 40 minutes and then not back that up in the second half was not what we wanted.

“We’ve had a good week of training and have looked to address the discipline issues such as the penalty count. In the past we have prided ourselves on our discipline but defensively we are looking to play more on the edge and you can’t do that without walking a fine line, we have to make sure we are at the right side of it.

“This game in Italy also gives us an opportunity to look at some other combinations and we’ve decided to rotate the squad.

“We’re delighted to have Sarah Hunter back in the team. She loves playing for her country and has worked so hard to get back playing. 

“This week we will be looking to maintain our performance levels for more of the game, the objective is to finish as strong as possible.

“Last week the finishers gave us a lift and allowed us to regain the momentum but we want to be on the front foot when they come on to allow them to focus on raising the bar as opposed to rescuing a situation.

“The biggest of games are generally decided in the latter stages so the depth of the squad and the impact of the finishers is likely to be the deciding factor. That’s their role, to get the job done in style and that’s what we will expect to see on Saturday.

“The last time we played in Italy and at the same venue it culminated in a great night for us, so it goes without saying we’re really looking forward to going back.”

England squad to face Italy in the 2021 Women’s Six Nations

England: 15 Ellie Kildunne, 14 Jess Breach, 13 Emily Scarratt, 12 Meg Jones, 11 Abby Dow, 10 Helena Rowland, 9 Leanne Riley; 1 Vickii Cornborough, 2 Amy Cokayne, 3 Shaunaugh Brown, 4 Zoe Aldcroft, 5 Cath O’Donnell, 6 Alex Matthews, 7 Vicky Fleetwood, 8 Sarah Hunter (c)

Replacements: 16 Lark Davies, 17 Hannah Botterman, 18 Bryony Cleall, 19 Harriet Millar Mills, 20 Poppy Cleall, 21 Claudia MacDonald, 22 Zoe Harrison, 23 Sarah McKenna

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