Just over a decade ago, the headquarters of the England women’s rugby team consisted of rat-infested portable huts in Twickenham’s north car park. Overshadowed by the grandeur of the main stadium, the dilapidated structures were synonymous with the low regard in which women’s rugby was held.
It would be years before the happy days of professionalism, before the foundations of a world team were laid and before misogynistic attitudes dissipated. Women in England were only granted permission to wear a rose on their shirts in 2008 (previously they had to make do with a tulip).
It would be another eight years before they were officially renamed the Red Roses, a team that has since been associated with world domination.
There has never been a more feared and dominant England team to bid for World Cup glory. The Red Roses will enter the New Zealand tournament next month riding a 25-match Test win streak, a world record for an international team, male or female. Throughout their ruthless winning streak, they have conceded an average of just under eight points per game, have “nullified” their opponents on six occasions and have recorded an average margin of victory of 39 points. These are mind-boggling statistics reflecting a plan the Rugby Football Union drew up for women’s football after England lost the 2017 World Cup final.
catalyst for change
Simon Middleton, the England head coach, collapsed in his seat that wet night at Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium. He had seen his team outscored 41-32 by a physical New Zealand outfit, who claimed a record fifth World Cup. He knew something had to change. At the time, players were spreading across England’s Sevens and XVs programmes, unable to fully dedicate themselves to one code and paying the price.
“We were coming from an Olympics and we finished fourth,” recalls Middleton. “And then he came off the back of a World Cup and finished second. With a lot of extremely good players, we were playing second fiddle because we moved players from one thing to another. It just didn’t lend itself to stability in either program, and certainly not to the players.”
Middleton made sure that the disappointment of 2017 was a catalyst for a game-changer where no rugby union had ever ventured: the full-scale professionalization of its women’s team and the division of programmes.
talent plus program
The effects were transformative. Within 18 months of starting full-time in 2019, England overtook the Black Ferns as the No. 1 team in the world. Last year, they crushed New Zealand twice to settle as favorites for the World Cup. Her destructiveness against the most successful team in women’s rugby proved that the investment paid off.
“For a long time in women’s rugby, it used to be just talent against talent,” explains Alice Soper, a New Zealand women’s rugby journalist. “Now it’s about the talent plus program. The reality is that we may still have the best talent in New Zealand, but we don’t have the best programme. Now England have that talent plus the program to support their development. I am a die-hard fan of the Black Ferns, but as a fan of women’s football, I want to see the return on investment.”
Set piece strength
England’s professionalisation has created a deep rift between them and the rest of the women’s rugby world. From the deft ball-handling skills of their forwards, to having the best ruck speed of any women’s team, the chasm in the class is terrifying.
Luke Woodhouse, who served as England women’s strength and conditioning coach from 2015 to 2020, believes the Red Roses’ success is underpinned by world-class coaches who have sculpted their pieces. Of the 44 tries England have scored in this year’s Six Nations, more than half (26) were from strikers, while 27 were engineered from their line-out platform.
“None of this happened just because we had good rugby players,” says Woodhouse, who highlights England’s highly-skilled cycle of forward coaches, from Matt Ferguson during the 2017 World Cup cycle and then Richard Blaze, to Richard Deacon. , the former Leicester padlock. currently leading the England pack. “Part of the main skill that elite coaches have is being able to identify deficits in technical and tactical ability. England’s set pieces are impressive and it’s because the coaches identified that as something that really gives room for improvement in the women’s game.”
Drive and determination
But one thing you can’t train is competitive drive, which England have loads of. “Professionalism has given us that advantage – everyone is hungry to be better and push themselves,” says prop Laura Keates, one of six survivors of England’s 2014 World Cup triumph who has been named in the 32-man squad for New Zealand. Keates has never been able to call herself a professional rugby player. The 34-year-old was not among the elite of English players offered a full-time contract in 2019, as she chose to pursue her dental degree which she completed this summer. England’s top players earn £31,000, a meager salary compared to the riches that flood the men’s game, but it is the will to win, rather than money, that has always been a motivating factor.
“It’s a super cliché, but it’s the people,” says Emily Scarratt, the vice-captain of England, who next month will head to her fourth World Cup. “I’ve always thought it’s what makes us who we are, makes us want to work harder, makes you want to have that tough conversation to make us better.”
For the past five years, Scarratt has been the face of England’s all-round kicking game, which has been another cornerstone of their success. From the power of Zoe Harrison’s boot to the versatility offered by centers Helena Rowland and Holly Aitchison, the Red Roses’ kicking ability has been painstakingly honed by Scott Bemand, the team’s back coach. But a strong kicking pedigree is synonymous with a more storied culture of skill development that dates back to the era of Gary Street, the former England head coach who masterminded the team’s 2014 World Cup triumph.
“You probably have fewer kickers than kickers in this England team now. It’s puzzling that other nations haven’t really drilled that, because it’s huge,” says former England fly-half Katy Daley-Mclean.
Such is the cohesion in the team, the team broke with tradition and did not visit a military-style training camp in a remote location before a World Cup for the purpose of team bonding. Instead, they spent much of their summer training block at England Rugby’s Pennyhill Park base in leafy Surrey. “We spent a lot of time in the barracks, especially before the 2017 World Cup,” adds Daley-Mclean. “None of this Pennyhill Park luxury.”
From rat-infested offices to the luxurious environs of Pennyhill Park, the transformation of English women’s rugby has been meteoric. Never before has a once-in-a-generation group of gamers been more prepared to show the world what they’re capable of.