The rise of the Red Roses has been on for several years now, a highlight being their World Cup win in 2014. We caught up with Poppy Cleall, Rochelle Clark, Natasha Hunt and Tamara Taylor to discuss what’s changed in Women’s rugby and reflect on their forthcoming Six Nations campaign.
In last year’s Six Nations, the Red Roses’ loss to France in the final game cost them the Championship. Since then, though, England have defeated Les Bleus twice.
With both sides set to dominate the tournament again this year, Hunt says the defeat of 2016 will be at the forefront of her mind.
“I wasn’t involved in the Six Nations campaign last time but followed it with great interest. Obviously, whenever a team beats us or when France took that title away from us in the last game it’s always in the back of your mind when you go and chase them again,” Hunt said.
“We’re looking to go out and win the Six Nations so fingers crossed we can start with a really strong performance against them.”
Entrance to the Red Roses’ match on Saturday will be free and the side are expecting around ten thousand spectators. This added pressure will spur the side on, but veteran international Clark says playing at Twickenham is always unique.
“Twickenham is one of my favourite grounds to play at, it’s just a very special place to go. Running out on the hallowed turf and the HQ of rugby is an amazing honour. It’s great that it’s the first game and against France, it couldn’t be a better stage,” she explained.
“You make so many sacrifices along the way but it’s all worth it when you pull the white shirt on and sing the national anthem. Fairly often, you’ll see me crying in the anthem!
“It does mean the world to me. Rugby is my life: I coach it, I watch it, I play it, I talk about it loads.”
As well as an opening game at the home of English rugby, this year all five of the women’s games will be broadcast live on TV. For Cleall, this can only be a good thing.
She said: “It’s great for us because it gives us more exposure and gets more people watching us, which really helps.
“I don’t think it builds any more pressure for us because we’re just used to going out there and playing rugby regardless of who’s watching.”
Cleall, 24, is one a record number of female players who was awarded a professional contract in January, as are Clark and Taylor. Hunt, who also represented Team GB at the Olympics, has had a contract since 2014 and recognises the impact it’s had on her performance.
“We’re really fortunate, I’ve got teammates that play for Scotland and they’ve got two days together before their first Six Nations match. We’re in a really fortunate position in that we’ve been training together for a month.”
For Taylor, the contracts are a sign of better things to come but their true impact may only be seen at the Rugby World Cup this August.
“I think it’s just the start of it really. Three of us [Cleall, Clark and Taylor] have only been professional since January 1. I think if you were to ask whether you’d be able to see the effects of the training we’ve done since then in this first game, I’m not sure whether you would,” Taylor explained.
“It’s a bit of a long-term project in that our ultimate peak is that World Cup in August. So, this training and coming through the Six Nations is going to be a building process on into the summer.”
With 14 years of experience representing England, Clark is best equipped to describe how the women’s game has changed.
“It’s become a lot more professional in the attitude and the opportunities we get with strength and conditioning. I refer back to team photos from the early days, 2003 onwards. Everyone’s athletic in the team now but back then, including myself, everyone was quite round around the edges,” Clark said.
“We used to have to pay to go into camp, for our kit and stuff. You have everything given to you now, the amount of training that goes into putting the white shirt on is vastly different. For me, one of the biggest changes was strength and conditioning.
“I think that really brought on a lot of us to be at our peak for 2014. Our current S and C is building on that and hopefully we’re going to be fitter, faster and stronger than last World Cup. You always need to be evolving, you can’t stand still.”
According to Taylor, having more time to train together is what will make the biggest difference this year.
“It is such a dynamic team sport, you’ve got tiny little people like Mo [Natasha Hunt], and you’ve got bigguns like Poppy. Everyone’s got a different job to do and if you don’t work together then those cogs don’t turn and you can’t get the outcome you want.
“It’s hard and it’s been really hard to train separately and train on your own in your own gym somewhere and then come and play for England.
“You have to take everything game by game but the Six Nations is a championship that we haven’t won in five years so every single one of us is absolutely desperate to get that trophy back.”