‘Almost like grieving’: The ‘heartbreak’ fuelling Holly Aitchison and England’s rebrand

Exclusive interview: Aitchison and the Red Roses look to bounce back from the crushing World Cup final defeat to New Zealand last year

Harry Latham-Coyle
Friday 24 March 2023 15:07 GMT
Holly Aitchison will start England’s Women’s Six Nations opener against Scotland at fly-half
Holly Aitchison will start England’s Women’s Six Nations opener against Scotland at fly-half (Getty Images)

Holly Aitchison sunk back on her haunches, the hurt of dreams stolen away etched on the face of a player suffering defeat in a Red Roses shirt for the first time. England had given New Zealand everything at Eden Park, staying in the battle after an early red card to leave them a shot at victory in the final moments.

England, as they had all tournament, went to their maul, kicking to the corner with the clock almost dead and three points in it, five metres and one more application of their inexorable rumbling mass from victory. But, for once, their lineout power play failed: A snatching Black Ferns hand reaching up between the limbs to snatch the ball, and the trophy, from England’s grasp. Aitchison could only watch on, helplessly, from out in the backline, a 30-match winning run at an end.

“I can’t put it into words other than heartbreak,” Aitchison tells The Independent while reflecting nearly five months on. “Everything that you had worked for, feeling like you were in a really good place to achieve your goals, and then everything goes wrong on the day and you don’t come away with the medal.

“It’s almost like grieving, I think, afterwards. Accepting what happened. I’ve only watched it back once. Scott [Bemand, backs coach] asked me to because he was doing some analysis on it. Though it is hard to digest the outcome of it, there are still loads of growing experiences. We went down to 14 players and I played at full-back – I’d never played at full-back in an international game in my life.

“It wasn’t a nice watch but I definitely don’t have as many bad feelings about it any more. In sport, you always need to be humbled at some stage.”

Defeats on the sevens circuit, including missing out on bronze with Team GB at Tokyo 2020, left Aitchison better equipped than some to deal with the despair, but the defeat still stung. It had been a week of complex emotions. The joy Aitchison felt of an unexpected starting chance in the centres had been somewhat tempered by the fact that her girlfriend, loosehead prop Hannah Botterman, was not able to share in the occasion. Botterman – a front row cornerstone and buzzing ball of energy on and off the field suffered a serious knee injury in the week before the semi-final.

“It was tough. I came over late from sevens, and I sort of felt like I had robbed her of that moment,” Aitchison candidly recalls. “She had worked so hard to get that opportunity.

“Everyone knows that injuries are a part of sport, but it is the worst time you could possibly get an injury, obviously. There were definitely dark moments with what had actually happened to her knee and the prognosis.

“But, without putting words in her mouth, it was nice that she had me to live through. Because she has so much care for me and I was getting to do it.

“She was still running quizzes at the back of the bus, being a nuisance everywhere in training. She cares so much about every other person in the team as well – it gave her that next level of incentive to still contribute to the team.”

And so England will start again, aiming to build another winning run and “grow the gap” to the rest of the world. They will begin a curious Women’s Six Nations as favourites. All six competing teams are in the grips of change, most still implementing professional contracts in some form with a series of long-standing coaches and players having moved on after the World Cup.

For England, it will be their last campaign under Simon Middleton, who departs as head coach after eight years in charge. A host of senior figures are absent, particularly in midfield, where injury has struck first-choice fly-halves Zoe Harrison and Helena Rowland. Their absence creates opportunity for Aitchison, until now a centre in the international arena.

Middleton has been impressed by Aitchison’s work in limited opportunities at fly-half. In last year’s Premier 15s playoffs, where the 26-year-old guided Saracens to a third title with a series of composed showings with Harrison injured. An extended look at the options Aitchison might present in the role as England shift to a more expansive game plan was always on the cards. But the midfield issues have expedited the process, with the door very much open for a role of increased importance.

“Everything is about opportunity,” says Aitchison, who can rely on an experienced playmaking partner in Amber Reed for Saturday’s opener against Scotland.

Holly Aitchison has a major opportunity with Zoe Harrison and Helena Rowland injured (Getty)

“There are a lot of experienced people that won’t be here and that’s an opportunity for me to put my spin on a shirt I wouldn’t have previously had, trying to put my own spin on a different brand of rugby.

“I played ten growing up, so if you ask me where I naturally sat when I was coming back from sevens, I would have said ten. But I just wanted to get my feet under the table with fifteens again. The game had moved on massively and ten was an important position where you need a lot of game understanding, which I didn’t feel like I had.

“I’m naturally one of the more reserved members of the squad, a bit more quiet. It doesn’t really come naturally to me so I kind of need to be thrust into the spotlight a bit before I take the initiative to stand up and speak in front of people. But I’ve now had so many different experiences that I kind of understand what other people want.

“That was not how we wanted to end in New Zealand and now we are focussed on a home World Cup in 2025. When we take the field, you’ll see a bit of a different England team to what you have seen before. I think we definitely want to stamp our authority on the tournament.”

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