England rejig backline for World Cup quarter-final test against Australia

Sport

England have rejigged their first-choice backline for Sunday’s World Cup quarter-final against Australia, with Tatyana Heard retaining her place in midfield and the versatile Helena Rowland switching to full-back. Sarah Hunter, the captain, is set to play her 138th Test and become the most capped player in her country’s history.

Heard was the player of the match on her World Cup debut against South Africa last weekend, prompting Simon Middleton to reshape his three-quarter line around the Gloucester-Hartpury centre. Rowland’s move to the 15 jersey has nudged Ellie Kildunne on to the bench, with Abby Dow and Lydia Thompson completing the back three. The fit-again hooker Lark Davies is among the replacements.

It reflects England’s desire to go up another gear in the tournament’s knockout stages as they aim to become world champions for the first time since 2014. Their forwards have been impressively strong but Middleton is looking for a purposeful performance in all aspects against the Wallaroos.

“England against Australia is always a huge occasion in any sport and we are looking forward to playing against a team we don’t face very often,” the head coach said. “We know the importance of a fast start on Sunday. Australia have had some very fast starts in their pool games so it is important we better their effort and set the tempo and physicality levels.”

Middleton also paid special tribute to the “unique” Hunter, who will overhaul Rocky Clark’s record as the most-capped England player of either sex. “To earn 138 caps for your country is a remarkable achievement and deserves to be celebrated,” Middleton said. “The way she conducts herself in everything she does on and off the field is admirable. Her people skills, ability to lead and communicate with people from all walks of life makes her stand out.

“I think as a sports person the one thing you hope you can do when you look back is to be able to say: ‘I couldn’t have given more, I’ve been the best I could be.’ Sarah is one of the very few who will unequivocally be able to do that. She is a unique person and captain.”

The prop Sarah Bern will win her 50th cap at just 25. “It is remarkable for someone so young,” said Middleton. “Sarah broke on to the scene at a young age and has become an integral part of our group. We’re delighted for her.”

Rosie Galligan, meanwhile, has been rewarded for her hat-trick of tries against South Africa with a place on the bench and England are delighted to welcome back Davies who has made a swift recovery from an ankle injury. “She’s worked relentlessly along with our sports science department to turn a 12-week return to play into a seven-week one,” said Middleton, happy with the intensifying competition for places in his squad.

“Off the back of three strong pool games – in which I think it’s fair to say every player has put their hand up – we have gone for a 23 we believe fits the bill for this particular game.”