A little over a decade ago, the head offices of the England women’s rugby team consisted of rat-infested portable cabins in the north car park at Twickenham. Dwarfed by the grandeur of the main stadium, the rickety structures were synonymous with the lowly regard in which women’s rugby was held.
It would be years before the halcyon days of professionalism, before the foundations of a world-beating team would be laid and before misogynistic attitudes would dissipate. England women were only granted permission to wear a rose on their shirts in 2008 (they previously had to make do with a tulip instead).
It would be another eight years until they were officially rebranded as the Red Roses, a team who have since become associated with world domination.
There has never been a more feared, dominant England side to bid for World Cup glory. The Red Roses will go into the tournament in New Zealand next month on a run of 25 consecutive Test wins – a world record for an international side, male or female. Throughout their ruthless winning streak, they have conceded on average just under eight points a game, have “nilled” their opponents on six occasions and have recorded an average winning margin of 39 points. These are mind-numbing statistics reflective of a blueprint the Rugby Football Union drew up for the women’s game after England lost the 2017 World Cup final.
Catalyst for change
Simon Middleton, the England head coach, slumped in his seat on that damp night at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. He had watched his side get outclassed 41-32 by a physical New Zealand outfit, who claimed a record fifth World Cup. He knew that something had to change. At the time, players were stretching themselves across both the England sevens and XVs programmes, unable to fully devote themselves to one code, and paying the price.
“We’d come off the back of an Olympics and finished fourth,” Middleton recalls. “And then came off the back of a World Cup and finished second. With a lot of extremely good players, we were second fiddle because we were moving players from one thing to another. It just didn’t lend itself to stability in either programme, and certainly not to the players.”
Middleton made sure the disappointment of 2017 was a catalyst for a game-changing move where no rugby union had ever ventured: full-scale professionalisation of its women’s team and splitting the programmes.
Talent plus programme
The effects were transformative. Within 18 months of going full-time in 2019, England overtook the Black Ferns as the world’s No 1-ranked team. Last year, they twice crushed New Zealand to install themselves as favourites for the World Cup. Their destructiveness against the most successful team in women’s rugby showed that investment reaped rewards.
“For a long time in women’s rugby, it used to just be talent versus talent,” Alice Soper, a New Zealand women’s rugby journalist, explains. “Now it’s about the talent plus programme. The reality is that we may still have the best talent in New Zealand, but we don’t have the best programme. Now, England has that talent plus the programme to support its development. I’m a diehard Black Ferns fan, but as a fan of the women’s game, I want to see investment rewarded.”
The professionalisation of England has created a deep fissure between them and the rest of the women’s rugby world. From their forwards’ slick ball-handling skills, to having the best ruck speed of any women’s team, the gulf in class is frightening.
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 set-pieces. Of the 44 tries England scored in this year’s Six Nations, more than half (26) came from forwards, while 27 were engineered from their line-out platform.
“None of this stuff happened by just having good rugby players,” says Woodhouse, who singles out England’s highly rated cycle of forwards coaches, from Matt Ferguson during the 2017 World Cup cycle and later Richard Blaze, to Richard Deacon, the former Leicester lock currently heading up England’s pack. “Part of the main skill that elite-level coaches have is being able to identify deficits in technical and tactical skill. England’s set-piece is awesome and it’s because the coaches identified that as being something that really gives a margin for improvement in the women’s game.”
Drive and determination
But one thing that cannot be coached is competitive drive – which England have bucketloads of. “Professionalism has given us that edge – everyone is hungry to be better and push themselves,” says prop Laura Keates, one of six survivors from England’s 2014 World Cup triumph who has been named in the 32-player 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 tribe of English female players offered a full-time contract in 2019, having chosen to pursue her dentistry degree that she finished this summer. Top England players earn £31,000 – a meagre salary compared to the riches awash in the men’s game – yet it is the will to win, rather than the money, that has always been a motivating factor.
“It’s super cliched, but it’s the people,” says Emily Scarratt, England’s vice-captain, who next month will be heading to her fourth World Cup. “I’ve always thought it’s the bit that 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-encompassing kicking game, which has been another cornerstone of their success. From the power of Zoe Harrison’s boot, to the versatility offered by centres Helena Rowland and Holly Aitchison, the Red Roses’ kicking ability has been carefully honed by Scott Bemand, the team’s backs coach. But a strong kicking pedigree is synonymous with a more historic culture of skill development that harks back to the era of Gary Street, the former England head coach who masterminded the team’s 2014 World Cup triumph.
“You’ve probably got less non-kickers than you have kickers in this England team now. It’s baffling that other nations haven’t really drilled that, because it’s huge,” former England fly-half Katy Daley-Mclean says.
Such is the cohesion in the squad, the team broke with tradition and did not visit a military-style boot camp in a far-flung place ahead of a World Cup for the purposes of team bonding. Instead, they spent large chunks of their summer training block at England Rugby’s Pennyhill Park base in leafy Surrey. “We spent a lot of time staying in barracks, especially before the 2017 World Cup,” Daley-Mclean adds. “None of this Pennyhill Park luxury.”
From rat-infested offices to the plush surroundings of Pennyhill Park, the transformation across English women’s rugby has been meteoric. Never before has a once-in-a-generation group of players been more ready to show the world what they are capable of.