|Venue: Sandy Park, Exeter Date: Sunday, 31 October Kick-off: 14:30 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Two, with live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.|
It feels like talk of the delayed 2021 Rugby World Cup has been going on forever, but for England things are about to get very serious.
On Sunday, the number one ranked side in the world face second best and their closest rivals for the World Cup: New Zealand.
As a player, it is the perfect chance to prove you are worthy of a place in the squad for next year’s showpiece.
As a coach, an opportunity to fine-tune tactics that have now been swirling around for four years and counting.
As a fan, it is just going to be a lot of fun.
‘It is a seriously fierce rivalry’
The Red Roses host New Zealand at Exeter’s Sandy Park on Sunday, before facing the same opponents at Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens a week later and both matches are live on BBC Two.
Simon Middleton’s side have already proved themselves in the northern hemisphere, winning a third Six Nations in a row in April.
But they just edged a 10-6 victory against France in the final, with questions raised over how they might fare without key leaders.
Injured England centre Emily Scarratt told BBC Radio 5 Live: “It is a seriously fierce rivalry [with New Zealand].
“I’m really excited to see what both sides have got. It is a big 12 months coming up in women’s rugby.”
Can anyone replace Scarratt?
Vice-captain Scarratt is one leader England will be forced to live without this autumn.
The 31-year-old broke her leg playing for Loughborough in September and is hoping to return in time for the 2022 Six Nations in April.
England head coach Middleton said last month that he had not yet “found a solution” to playing without Scarratt, but for now sevens player Holly Aitchison seems to be the answer.
The 24-year-old will take Scarratt’s place at 13 against New Zealand in her international XVs debut, with more experienced inside centre Amber Reed assuming vice-captaincy duties.
Lagi Tuima is ready to fight for her place from the bench, offering a strong kicking game and, in the words of prop Shaunagh Brown, “Fijian flair”.
With such a star player absent, versatility is surely going to be a key attribute of Middleton’s backline this autumn.
Zoe Harrison starts at fly-half but has played at 12 for England in the past and may well stay on the field if Helena Rowland comes on at 10 later in the game.
Scarratt herself thinks the development of a new England 13 is “really exciting”.
“I would love to see somebody come through and play really well in that shirt for the next four Tests,” she added.
“If and when I’m back, I want serious competition and I want to have to fight to get it back. I don’t want things to be easy.
“It means we are going to be in the best possible place when we do go down to New Zealand and hopefully bring something pretty shiny back with us.”
Hunter holds on to starting spot
England are also still working on replacing fly-half Katy Daley-Mclean, who retired in December 2020.
Rowland seemed to come out of the 2021 Six Nations as number one but it is Harrison who gets the first start of the autumn.
Repeated injuries for captain Sarah Hunter in the spring suggested a new leader could be needed before the World Cup, but the 36-year-old retains her starting place at number eight for Sunday’s Test.
Poppy Cleall is the top name among numerous back row options but the Saracen has been moved to the second row.
Hunter still has plenty of competition to hold off though, with back row spots fiercely fought over and Sarah Beckett and Vicky Fleetwood unavailable through injury.
With matches against Canada – the third best side in the world – and sixth-ranked United States to come later in November, those not able to face the Black Ferns could still get the chance to prove themselves.
Should England fear the unknown?
As for New Zealand, they are a relatively unknown entity given the coronavirus pandemic means the Black Ferns have not played a Test in two years and coach Glenn Moore has named nine debutants in his matchday 23.
The sevens side’s Olympic win in Tokyo shows the strength of women’s rugby in New Zealand, as do the five world titles the XVs team has to its name.
A 53-7 victory against Wales in a warm-up game last Sunday suggests a closely fought encounter to come at Sandy Park, but they will be without the experienced Portia Woodman and Kelly Brazier due to injury.
“They are the Black Ferns,” Scarratt said. “Irrelevant of how long it has been since they last touched a rugby ball, they are still good at it.”
England: Kildunne; Thompson, Aitchison, Reed (vice-capt), Dow; Harrison, MacDonald; Botterman, Davies, Bern, P Cleall, Ward, Aldcroft, Packer, Hunter (capt).
Replacements: Cokayne, Cornborough, Muir, Millar-Mills, Matthews, Infante, Rowland, Tuima.
New Zealand: Holmes; Wickliffe, Fluhler, Alley, Leti-l’iga; Demant, Cocksedge; Love, Ngata-Aerengamate, Nelson, Blackwell, Wills, Bremner, Elder (capt), Faleafaga.
Replacements: Houpapa-Barrett, Murray, Itunu, Mikaele-Tu’u, Simon, Bayler, Maliepo, Brooker.