It takes a very special player to keep Sarah Hunter out of the England side but in Poppy Cleall, that is exactly what the Red Roses have.
The No.8, who has succeeded Emily Scarratt in being named the 2021 Women’s Six Nations Player of the Championship, was sensational this year as she spearheaded the charge to a third successive crown.
Virtually unplayable against Scotland, Cleall then enjoyed a fine cameo off the bench in the victory over Italy that booked England’s place in the final.
And it was that game against France that underlined her importance to the team. Where free-flowing rugby had been the order of the day in the pool stages, the final was an incredibly tight affair with both defences on top.
In those games, the big players have to stand up and that is exactly what Cleall did. Her quick tap from a scrum free-kick allowed her to charge at the French defence, before a deft offload to Zoe Harrison. And as if to emphasise her work rate, it was again Cleall who made the pick and drive from the very next phase to score the only try in the 10-6 victory.
Her coach Simon Middleton had called her the best player in the world after the win over Scotland and on current form, it is hard to argue.
“Her understanding of the game is pretty phenomenal,” Middleton said.
“Poppy has got a really good all-round game. Physically she is in the best shape she has ever been and that has translated onto the field.”
As a former prison officer, the intensity of international rugby certainly does not faze Cleall, who was winning her 46th cap for her country at the Stoop.
Along with twin sister Bryony, with whom she played internationally for the first time in the win over Scotland, Cleall honed her craft at Ellingham and Ringwood RFC on the edge of the New Forest.
The twins’ dad Peter was an influential figure in her development and while she of course appreciated Middleton’s high praise, it is her father’s opinion that counts.
She explained on BBC Radio 5 Live Rugby Union Weekly podcast: “My own opinion is the only one I really listen to – actually that and my dad’s.”
Middleton backed up his words with action, choosing to hand Cleall the starting role against France and leave usual captain Hunter on the bench.
That was fitting reward for the 28-year-old, with Hunter coming on in the second half and making an impact as England held off a ferocious French comeback.
And with the versatility of the England pack – Cleall can play pretty much anywhere in the back five of the scrum – the competition for places is particularly healthy, with Hunter proving very supportive of her younger teammates.
Cleall added: “We are quite good friends in camp so it’s never been awkward.
“It’s always about getting the team in the best place so she is 100 percent supportive to all of us in the forwards, doing everything she can to make sure we are in the best place.”
With Hunter still on the recovery trail from injury, it remains to be seen how England’s forward pack will line up going forward.
What seems certain however, is that while Cleall is playing at this level, she will be impossible to ignore.