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Smith relishing selection dilemmas as Lightning’s WXV stars return

Loughborough Lightning are in a ‘really good position’ heading into the start of the Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby season, according to head coach Nathan Smith.

A playing group packed full of youth enjoyed a fine Allianz Cup campaign that ended with victories over Harlequins and Trailfinders Women.

The squad will now receive a seismic boost with the return of multiple internationals who were away competing in the inaugural WXV tournaments ahead of Lightning’s league opener away at Saracens on 18 November.

Eight will return with winners’ medals to show for their efforts as Cath O’Donnell, Helena Rowland and Daisy Hibbert-Jones played their part in England winning WXV 1, while Rachel Malcolm captained Scotland to WXV 2 glory along with her fellow Scots Chloe Rollie, Helen Nelson, Christine Belisle and Emma Wassell.

“I have been impressed as to how the players have brought into philosophies and behaviours,” said Smith. “We have gradually progressed through the Premiership Cup block, improving week on week.

“And we are in a really good position where we are bringing back many international players into an environment that’s going to be really competitive for them.

“Ours is a tough team to get in to if you’re coming back or here at the moment, so that is something I’m really looking forward to.”

Nathan Smith, Loughborough Lightning head coach

The 2023/24 season did start with a couple of narrow defeats to Gloucester-Hartpury and Saracens but the performances in both matches were laden with positives, laying the foundations for the positive results that followed.

“We tried to not think too much results-wise, and just concentrated on the performance,” said Smith. “But when we are winning, it creates belief into what you are doing, because there are only going to be a certain amount of times you can say you have played well, but not got the victory.

“It’s also great for the players to go to the Stoop and get the win and a great memory to take from the Cup campaign.”

It has been a positive start in the role for Smith who joined in the summer from men’s Championship side Doncaster Knights, where he spent three seasons.

The progress many players have made is creating a welcome headache building up the 23-woman squad he selects for the trip to Allianz Park for Round One.

He added: “One of the main things I looked at when I first came in was looking for our point of difference, and I think that is our ability to develop young players to really push the international players competition wise.

“The leadership side of stuff is ticked off; it’s more now for the younger players who have played in the Cup to come in and really challenge and play in the Lightning team.”

This season will also be the first that Lightning play all their home league games at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens, starting on 9 December with the visit of Bristol Bears.

It’s the latest development of the partnership with Northampton Saints that is entering into its third season.

“The support we have had from Saints on and off of the field is really good,” explained Smith. “We have got a good relationship with Matt Ferguson who’s got experience working in the international women’s game. They have also helped me and the Operations Manager out immensely, so it’s been good also in that regard.

“Playing at cinch Stadium at Franklins Gardens is fantastic, but we also have to understand the responsibility that comes with that. It’s a historic place to play and we have to keep building and improving our performances to show our best in such a good ground.”

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