‘Gifted’ Holly Aitchison elevates game on debut as England fill Emily Scarratt void

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Holly Aitchison of England breaks away before scoring their side's fifth try (Getty)
Holly Aitchison of England breaks away before scoring their side's fifth try (Getty)

The Black Ferns may wish they had stayed in New Zealand. For more than two years Glenn Moore’s side have sat internationally idle, unable to trouble under tight border restrictions, watching the women’s rugby world progress without them. This was hardly the occasion they had hoped for their grand return in front of 10,000 fans at Sandy Park – an outstanding England spoiling any prospect of a travelling party in Exeter on the occasion of New Zealand’s 100th Test.

Let us begin with the mitigation, for there is much. The Black Ferns had not played a fully-fledged international for 26 months and were asked to immediately encounter the thrice-successive Six Nations champions. There were four debutants in Moore’s starting side and five more on the bench, with a host of new combinations included.

But this was a proper out-classing, in all facets. The usually reliable Black Ferns set-piece creaked mightily under the strain of England’s remodelled front eight, the lineout particularly as England’s leapers picked and pilfered the aerial ball like apples from the autumn orchard.

Yet though Lark Davies was the buried beneficiary of one mauling from the forwards, it was England’s backs who dazzled. They had arrived in Exeter with problems behind the scrum, the multi-faceted mastery of Emily Scarratt absent after a broken leg, and Jess Breach still not fully fit, while Leanne Infante’s disrupted start to the season after a fluke injury at home meant a rare start for Claudia MacDonald at scrum-half.

These were problems complicated further when vice-captain and steady midfield hand Amber Reed tweaked her hamstring in the team run, but ultimately it mattered little. In slipped Lagi Tuima, an ever-improving player with boundless talent who produced a fine performance, but it was Saracens teammates Zoe Harrison and debutant Holly Aitchison who ran the show.

England celebrate after beating the Black Ferns (Getty)
England celebrate after beating the Black Ferns (Getty)

Head coach Simon Middleton had shown real faith in Aitchison, a player he has long admired and convinced to eschew a role in Great Britain Sevens to take up one of England’s 29 fifteen-a-side contracts. A lithe, pacey playmaker, Aitchison, more traditionally a ten or twelve, was by her own admission “learning the ropes” at outside centre, a position she has seldom played, particularly since returning to 15s in September of last year.

It mattered little. Against a familiar foe in Olympic sevens gold medallist Stacey Fluhler, curiously quiet barring a late consolation in the corner, Aitchison was close to faultless.

“Holly Aitchison was terrific today. She has taken her game to another level this year,” said Middleton of his outside centre. “When we brought her back into the fold, I talked to her at length at how we would probably look at her as a ten or twelve, but it has transpired that 13 is the spot we need to fill.

“What you have got is a really gifted player. She was a real talent, she had some injury setbacks and then joined sevens, but I think the Olympics experience has done her massive good.

“She has come into the environment so confident. She’s such an unassuming person but she has flourished. We’ve got a lot of time together going forward and we can build those relationships going forward but [the midfield] clicked.”

Aitchison relied on the steadying hand of Harrison inside her, a close teammate at Saracens, where the pair combine in a playmaking 10-12 axis to some effect. This was perhaps Harrison’s best showing in England white, rebounding from a slight dip in confidence in the first half of this year as she continues to battle Helena Rowland to fill the great chasm left by Katy Daley-Mclean’s retirement.

Harrison remains England’s best kicking fly-half, and grew into the game as she pressed the Black Ferns back with her boot in a first half of territorial gains, before settling into her flow with deft distribution with England able to force favourable match-ups out wide at will.

Hannah Botterman, Holly Aitchison and Zoe Harrison after victory at Sandy Park (Getty)
Hannah Botterman, Holly Aitchison and Zoe Harrison after victory at Sandy Park (Getty)

Alongside her club colleague, experienced in this England set-up but still a developing player, Harrison shone.

“I’m so proud of Zoe today,” beamed Aitchison of her teammate. “She was incredible – she really led us to win, the ultimate controller. We combine week-in, week-out so it was really comforting in a relatively new position to have someone stable there. She was unreal today.

“I couldn’t have really asked for any more on debut. I don’t think anyone expected for us to win the way we did.”

England will expect a Black Ferns backlash of sorts in Northampton next week, but will march up to Franklin’s Gardens with a winning run now extended and status as the world’s best team emphatically renewed.

Middleton conceded after the news of Scarratt’s leg break in September that his team had not yet found a suitable solution to the questions posed when the irrepressible centre is absent. In Aitchison, they might just have found an unexpected answer.

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