Wasps scrum-half Claudia MacDonald is in England’s training squad, less than a year after a serious neck injury.
But England head coach Simon Middleton said a recent scan has showed “fantastic improvement”.
MacDonald is joined in the 37-woman squad, building up to October’s Rugby World Cup, by club-mate Abby Dow who is hoping to be fit after breaking her leg in the Six Nations in April.
The squad will be cut to 32 players before England travel to New Zealand for the tournament, which begins on 8 October. They will face Fiji, France and South Africa in the pool stages.
MacDonald’s inclusion for the pre-season training block, which gets under way on Monday in Bath, makes scrum-half the most contested position for the Red Roses with Middleton admitting he might only take two or three players in that position.
Bristol’s Leanne Infante, Gloucester-Hartpury’s Natasha Hunt and Lucy Packer of Harlequins are all included, but could be asked to cover other positions to make the squad.
Middleton has also included Loughborough Lightning duo Cath O’Donnell and Morwenna Talling after both missed out on the Six Nations through injury.
Notable omissions include Wasps back-rower Harriet Millar-Mills and Harlequins centre Lagi Tuima.
On winger Dow’s return to fitness, Middleton explained that the 24-year-old was now doing weight-bearing work and they wanted to give her the “best chance” to get ready for the tournament.
“If anyone can get fit and ready to go it will be Abby,” said Middleton. “She’s a player you’ll wait for.”
Middleton wants more to choose from
All World Cup squads will travel with 32 players, an increase on 28 from the last women’s World Cup in 2017, and will include nine front rows.
This was the same number as the men at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. However, in 2023 the men’s teams will travel to France with 33 players. World Rugby say this is because the men play five pool stage matches, rather than four.
However, Middleton admits he would like a larger squad.
“I’d go with 36 because of Covid protocols that are still in place and the impact that it still has,” he said.
“Things can change between now and then, but the concussion protocols as well lends itself to being a larger squad.
“We came unstuck a little bit at the last World Cup with Danielle Waterman picking up a concussion that was a five-day turnaround and you could see the impact that had.”
World Rugby has recently introduced a new 12-day minimum standard for players to return from brain injuries.
Covid procedures for teams at the tournament are yet to be confirmed but players and staff can all expect to be tested on a regular basis.
But Middleton knows England are in a better position than some of their rivals.
“We won’t be making a fuss about it, to be honest,” he added.
“Some nations might not have that depth of 36 players, 32 probably makes it a fairer playing field.”
England training squad
Forwards: Zoe Aldcroft (Gloucester-Hartpury), Sarah Beckett (Harlequins), Sarah Bern (Bristol Bears), Hannah Botterman (Saracens), Shaunagh Brown (Harlequins), Bryony Cleall (Wasps), Poppy Cleall (Saracens), Amy Cokayne (Harlequins), Vickii Cornborough (Harlequins). Lark Davies (Bristol Bears), Vicky Fleetwood (Saracens), Rosie Galligan (Harlequins), Sarah Hunter (Loughborough Lightning), Sadia Kabeya (Loughborough Lightning), Alex Matthews (Gloucester-Hartpury), Maud Muir (Gloucester-Hartpury), Cath O’Donnell (Loughborough Lightning), Marlie Packer (Saracens), Connie Powell (Gloucester-Hartpury), Morwenna Talling (Loughborough Lightning), Abbie Ward (Bristol Bears)
Backs: Holly Aitchison (Saracens), Jess Breach (Harlequins), Abby Dow (Wasps), Zoe Harrison (Saracens), Tatyana Heard (Gloucester-Hartpury), Natasha Hunt (Gloucester-Hartpury), Ellie Kildunne (Harlequins), Claudia MacDonald (Wasps), Sarah McKenna (Saracens), Lucy Packer (Harlequins), Amber Reed (Bristol Bears), Leanne Infante (Bristol Bears), Helena Rowland (Loughborough Lightning), Emily Scarratt (Loughborough Lightning), Emma Sing (Gloucester-Hartpury), Lydia Thompson (Worcester Warriors)