The best women’s team in world rugby welcome their closest rivals on Sunday as the Red Roses take on the mighty New Zealand in their opening Autumn International.
England secured their third consecutive Women’s Six Nations crown earlier this year but the Black Ferns are the reigning world champions and pose a formidable test.
It will be the first of two back-to-back matches between the sides and marks special significance for the tourists, who will be contesting their 100th Test match at Sandy Park.
The Red Roses will also have to cope without their talismanic vice-captain Emily Scarratt, who remains sidelined after breaking her leg playing for Loughborough in September.
And with the much-anticipated encounter being shown live on BBC Two, the stage is set for an almighty tussle between two teams with world domination on their mind.
Sarah Hunter captains the Red Roses at No.8 while Holly Aitchison will make her debut at outside centre alongside Amber Reed, who has been named vice-captain for the autumn.
Fly-half Zoe Harrison forms the half-back pairing with No.9 Claudia MacDonald, with Lydia Thompson, Abby Dow and Ellie Kildunne named as the back three.
In the forwards, Saracens’ Hannah Botterman starts at loosehead prop with Lark Davies and Sarah Bern making up the front row ahead of Abbie Ward and Poppy Cleall in the second row.
Meanwhile, New Zealand have not played a Test in two years due to the coronavirus pandemic and coach Glenn Moore has named nine debutants in his matchday 23.
Captain Les Elder returns for her first match in the black jersey after the birth of her first child last year, supported by vice captains and veterans Kendra Cocksedge and Eloise Blackwell.
An experienced front row with more than 70 combined caps in Pip Love, Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate and Aleisha-Pearl Nelson will set a strong platform at set piece.
WHAT THEY SAID
England head coach Simon Middleton said: “We’re really looking forward to the autumn internationals and opening against New Zealand at Sandy Park.
“The number one ranked side in the world coming up against the reigning champions is an exciting prospect. We’re really starting to see some of our youngsters mature into fine players.
“This autumn series is a great opportunity for them to stake a claim for the World Cup. Holly Aitchison is one such player. She has been playing extremely well at Saracens and has trained outstandingly since coming into the programme.
“Similarly it’s great to see the quality we have developing in key positions like the half backs. We have a raft of young scrum halves starting to surface and they will unquestionably challenge our current crop.”
New Zealand head coach Glenn Moore said: “We’ve had some really good talent coming through back in New Zealand and the players we have brought into our environment have really stepped up and I think those that debut this weekend will all make an impact on the game.
“Les is an exceptional leader and is very important to this group. She leads from the front and communicates well under pressure so it is great to have her back.
“There is already a bit of spark in the group given it’s our first Test in almost two and a half years, add to that the 100th milestone and it makes for a very special occasion. There is a great rivalry between these two teams so I’m sure we can expect another great Test this weekend.”
England: Ellie Kildunne; Lydia Thompson, Holly Aitchison, Amber Reed (vice-capt), Abby Dow; Zoe Harrison, Claudia MacDonald; Hannah Botterman, Lark Davies, Sarah Bern, Poppy Cleall, Abbie Ward, Zoe Aldcroft, Marlie Packer, Sarah Hunter (capt).
Replacements: Amy Cokayne, Vickii Cornborough, Maud Muir, Harriet Millar-Mills, Alex Matthews, Leanne Infante, Helena Rowland, Lagi Tuima.
New Zealand: Renee Holmes; Renee Wickliffe, Stacey Fluhler, Chelsea Alley, Ayesha Leti-l’iga; Ruahei Demant, Kendra Cocksedge; Pip Love, Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Aleisha-Pearl Nelson, Eloise Blackwell, Kelsie Wills, Alana Bremner, Les Elder (capt), Dhys Faleafaga.
Replacements: Grace Houpapa-Barrett, Krystal Murray, Aldora Itunu, Llana Mikaele-Tu’u, Kennedy Simon, Ariana Bayler, Patricia Maliepo, Grace Brooker.