Ed: England’s ‘Red Roses’ narrowly failed to take the trophy but full respect for a great performance.
This Saturday sees England Women take on World Champions New Zealand in the final of the Rugby World Cup, but can the Red Roses bring the trophy home?
With only days to go before England’s women rugby union appearance in the World Cup Final in Auckland New Zealand, the first team to go fully professional has to fancy their chances of winning their first world title since 2014. If they achieve head coach Simon Middleton’s dream of lifting the trophy, it will signify only the second time that the ‘Black Ferns’ as the New Zealanders are known have not been champions since 1998.
England came through the group stage with ease chalking up comfortable wins against Fiji and South Africa. Only their old adversaries France put up a real contest with England coming through as eventual winners 13-7 in the fixture that has become known as the “le crunch”. Australia were England’s quarter final opponents before the Red Roses dispatched Canada in Saturday’s semi-final winning by a try and a conversion, 26-19.
The success that England have enjoyed over recent years is a reflection of the investment that the nation’s governing body, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), has made in the elite squad. As well as awarding full time contracts, they have developed participation in the game through the ‘Every Rose’ action plan at the county, premiership and England under 18 and 20 levels. Members of the elite squad all play for one of the eight Allianz Premiership clubs located across the country with most based in the south of England as well as Sale in Manchester and Darlington Mowden Park in the North East. All but two are linked with Gallagher Premiership rugby clubs, recently reduced from ten with the demise of Wasps and Worcester Warriors after both clubs recently went into administration.
Rugby in the West of England
The West of England has a proud history of rugby union and the women’s game is no exception with top flight clubs based in both Bristol and Gloucester. Bristol Bears Women, for example, has seen the benefits from aligning the women’s side with their male counterparts who also play in the top flight of English professional rugby. Six years ago the women’s side played their matches at Cleve RFC in the city, a local grassroots club with the facilities and back up that such a club could offer. The links with the men’s side and backroom organisation was far more informal. However a reorganisation and the advent of the Allianz Premier 15s league in 2017 brought the women and their male counterparts closer together. The women now train at the club’s multi million pound High Performance Centre located just outside of the Bristol at Failand. They benefit from sports nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches and state of the art gym facilities. Players from both teams regularly share opportunities to develop skills and knowledge under the same roof. The women also play a number of matches at Bristol City’s ground Ashton Gate following the men’s fixture in what have become known as “double headers”. Bristol Women topped the table for the highest average home attendance in the 2021-22 season and a couple of thousand fans have stayed on to watch them play following the men’s fixture whilst enjoying a pint of locally produced cider and a pasty.
With former Bath player Dave Ward at the helm, Bristol Bears Women have improved upon their previous end of season standings having reached the play-off semi-finals last season after finishing at their highest place so far, third in the table. As women’s rugby continues to develop, most of the league’s players remain unpaid and so support themselves through work outside of the sport and many continue in higher education. Bristol forwards Sarah Byrne and Abbie Ward (the head coach’s wife) are both in New Zealand for the tournament and recent form suggests that the England side are in with a very good chance of bringing the cup back to Twickenham. Other nations are now following the England model with fifteen Welsh players now under contract and Ireland having just followed suit offering up to €30k per player following a tumultuous couple of years resulting in the departure of their head coach as concerns that the women’s game was being treated as a poor relation.
Red Roses or Black Ferns
Not only did England’s win against Canada to take them into the final, but they increased their unbeaten run to thirty matches having not lost a game since 2019. Ranked number one in the world they will be looking to avenge their 2017 narrow defeat to New Zealand in Belfast when the competition was last in the northern hemisphere. If recent form provides an indication, the two friendly matches played against the ‘Ferns’ last autumn would suggest an England victory. The two sides met in Exeter and Northampton resulting in comfortable wins for the England. This however was on the back of a two year hiatus for the Kiwis following Covid restrictions which saw their international fixtures cancelled from August 2019 until their tour to England. Ranked second, it is little surprise that these two teams find themselves contesting the final at the Eden Park stadium. The final starts at 6.30 am on Saturday 12th November and is being aired live on ITV and is also available for catch up on the ITV Hub app and website.
Much like the success of the England Women’s football side, the ‘Lionesses’, who lifted the European Championship trophy at Wembley this year, their rugby counterparts have seen record breaking attendances. They are playing their games all around the country as a part of developing access to the sport. Crowds regularly number in the thousands with nearly 11,000 watching the side against Wales in March 2020.
More internationals in the spring and beyond
If your appetite has been wetted for top class international rugby union, then the fixtures for the TikTok Women’s Six Nations tournament have been released and the first round of matches kick off on 25 March 2023. The BBC will continue to show live coverage of all the games as last season. If you are inspired to go along and watch, England will be playing three home games in Newcastle, Northampton and at Twickenham. A further boost was given to English rugby with the country being announced as hosts for the 2025 Women’s World Cup. This is a great opportunity to, not only build on Six Nations’ successes, but to add even more momentum in developing the women’s game.
If England are successful on Saturday and bring home the trophy, you may well be seeing World Cup winners showing off their skills as England defend their Six Nations title in the spring.
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