Helena Rowland admits her return to 15-a-side rugby has gone better than even she could have hoped when she signed for Loughborough Lightning last September.

Rowland had been a full-time member of the England women’s sevens set-up, appearing regularly on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and pushing for a place in the Great Britain squad for the Olympic Games.

However, the postponement of Tokyo 2020, and subsequent funding cuts at the Rugby Football Union, left England’s sevens players looking for other opportunities.

Fortunately for Rowland, one presented itself at Loughborough, where she is also studying part-time for a degree, and the playmaker has not looked back.

Less than two months after her switch to the Lightning was confirmed, the 21-year-old made her test debut, replacing Katy Daley-Mclean during England’s 54-0 Women’s Six Nations win over Italy.

A fortnight later, Rowland started at fly-half as England beat France 33-10 in Grenoble and the following week won her third cap, again as a replacement, helping to turn the tide in the Red Roses’ favour during a 25-23 defeat of Les Bleues at Twickenham.

“It's gone better than I ever anticipated it would, coming back to 15s,” Rowland told World Rugby.

“I'd played one [Premier 15s] season previously and didn't really know what to expect. Obviously, the game's moved on a lot, even in the two years that I'd been away. 

“But, yeah, I've loved it and it's gone much better than I ever thought it would.”

Big shoes to fill

England’s victory at Stade des Alpes last November was a significant one as it was achieved by a 23-player squad that did not include the talismanic Daley-Mclean.

Rowland played the full 80 minutes at fly-half in Grenoble, with her former Saracens team-mate Zoe Harrison outside her at inside-centre and Megan Jones offering cover on the bench.

Daley-Mclean did play in the return match against France at Twickenham, but the 116-cap fly-half announced her retirement from test rugby in December.

“They're obviously massive shoes to fill,” Rowland said of Daley-Mclean. “She marshalled the game so well and just had a great understanding of game management and how to get the best out of the people around her.”

Rowland, Harrison and Jones have each been in sparkling form during this season’s Premier 15s and are competing to wear the number 10 jersey in England’s opening Women’s Six Nations 2021 match against Scotland on Saturday.

Although Rowland says she is “up for the fight”, she reveals it is a cooperative rivalry with two women she knows extremely well; Harrison from the title-winning 2017-18 season at Saracens and Jones through England sevens.

“We're all just trying to push each other on. I think we all play slightly different games, which is good because we try and pick up different attributes from each other, but it's definitely a friendly rivalry,” she said.

“It definitely helps having people like Zoe and Meg in that squad as well to bounce ideas off and just, I suppose, talk things through, get a bigger understanding of the game and what each of us is trying to achieve and how we go about that. 

“And, I think it can only be a good thing that you've got us all kind of working together to try and get the best out of each other.”

Showcasing the women’s game

Should the trio do that over the coming weeks then a 17th Women’s Six Nations title will be within reach for England.

This year’s Championship will be contested in an abbreviated format with the teams split into two pools and each playing two matches before a final placing play-off.

Although that means a reduction in matches for each team from five to three, the tournament will be played as a standalone event and will be broadcast on terrestrial TV in the UK and Ireland — both for the first time.

“I think having a standalone tournament for the women is a big thing and hopefully we can get a decent following behind it,” Rowland said. 

“It's on the BBC, so it's available to everyone to watch, which is great. And, I think hopefully the slightly nicer weather, maybe, will allow for some nice, expansive rugby and allows us to really show what we can bring.”

The Women’s Six Nations is Rowland’s sole focus for the next three weeks but having been named in the Great Britain training squad for Tokyo 2020, alongside Jones, and with Loughborough riding high in the Premier 15s, she faces a busy few months. And, that is without taking her studies into consideration.

“The biggest thing I found at the moment is [remembering] all the different calls,” Rowland admitted.

“It's quite easy to get caught up and say the wrong things for the wrong team, which normally gets picked up by someone!”

Rowland remains “very excited” by the prospect of representing Great Britain in Tokyo. “To play in an Olympics is something that I've just dreamt of from knowing that that was a possibility,” she said.

So, in an ideal world what would the next four months look like? “From an England 15s point of view, playing through the Six Nations campaign,” she said. 

“Hopefully coming out with some good performances and some good results from that would be great to be honest, and be part of that squad. 

“Then with Lightning, I would absolutely love to win the league with them. It would be nice to change it up a bit from the Harlequins-Sarries finals, which have dominated the last few seasons. 

“But, we've got a lot of work to do between now and then, and a few more big games to play, which will decide whether or not we're in the top four and have the opportunity to go to the final. 

“And then, sevens obviously I would just love to be involved in that squad that goes to Tokyo.”

READ MORE: Julie Paterson: “It’s brave of Six Nations to appoint a woman as Director of Rugby” >>