Extract from THE RED ROSES by Jessica Hayden

  23 Feb '24   |  Posted by: Birlinn

This is the first book to go behind the scenes with England’s Red Roses, unveiling their, challenges, heartbreaks and triumphs. Jessica Hadyen tells this remarkable story, featuring interviews with all the major players to tell the true story of the team, including Marlie Packer, Jess Breach, former captain Emily Scarratt and many more.

This extract is from chapter two, Growing Roses.

Women’s rugby developed into the 21st century, with small hubs of women’s rugby players growing around the country. One was at Oldfield Academy in Bath, where 16-year-old boys and girls could go and study for their A levels alongside training in a high-performance environment. The women were coached by Gary Street, who would go on to become England’s head coach, and his young students included future Red Roses Rachael Burford, Danielle ‘Nolli’ Waterman, Heather Fisher, Claire Allan and Kat Merchant. When they didn’t have lessons, they would be training on the rugby pitches. It was a very early form of a high-performance environment, with the players living away from home and fully embedded in a rugby academy.

Gary remembers how Rachael would spend hours every single day perfecting her pass, dragging him out of his office to do passing training, even if the pair had already spent two hours practising the same techniques that morning. In 2001, Gary took the team to the European 7s competition and upon arrival the players were shocked to see the pitch had been made shorter and narrower for the women. They had to play with inflatable rugby posts which crossed over in the wind, challenging any attempt at a successful conversion.

By the time of the 2006 World Cup, there was a bank of talent not only in the England team but also on the fringes, with the England academy now set up and working well to produce talented Red Roses. The international game by this point had more support from the IRB (now World Rugby), but England were still being run by the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW), which was not fully absorbed by the RFU until 2010.

The support was small in 2006 and England received the vast majority of their funding from Sport England. There was one tackle that effectively saved women’s rugby in England, according to Gary. In 2006, as he recalls, the team would have lost their Sport England funding had they not reached the Rugby World Cup final. Gary decided not to tell the players or his coaching staff what was riding on their performances, so as not to add to the pressure on them.

In the semi-final, against Canada, England maintained a comfortable lead late into the second half and Gary felt calmer in the stands. For now, his England women’s rugby programme was safe. But all of a sudden, two quick tries from Canada put England’s safety into question. With the score 20–14, Canada were within one try of beating England and battling their way into the final. Canada got a scrum deep in their own half but, with England’s defence tiring after an end-to-end match, the Canadian backs decided to run with the ball, beating the foot chase of the Red Roses and nearing the touchline when winger Kim Shaylor took down her Canadian opponent just in front of the try line. That one tackle meant England won the game, sent them through to the final and, unbeknown to Kim, saved England’s women’s rugby programme.

England lost the final to New Zealand in 2006, adding one more chapter into what has become the biggest rivalry in women’s rugby. Four years later, in 2010, Gary was the England head coach and the team had won all four Six Nations tournaments since the previous World Cup, including three Grand Slams. England were hosting the tournament and were on good form to win, when New Zealand, once more, beat them in a hard-fought final.

Ahead of 2014, Gary knew he had to expose the players to New Zealand more. The tournaments were often decided against New Zealand and the Red Roses sat them on a pedestal in their heads. The Black Ferns were their biggest rivals and the Six Nations was not providing England with the competition needed to prepare them for those all-or-nothing matches against the Black Ferns. So in 2011 and 2012, England helped fund the Black Ferns to play in two three-Test series, and England travelled to New Zealand in 2013 to play a return series there. In 2011, England won two and drew one, in 2012 England won all three and in 2013 they lost all three. For Gary, that 2013 series was when he knew England would win the 2014 World Cup, because England had got close to the Black Ferns without their strongest side (some of the leading England players could not get the time off work to travel to New Zealand), and he could see how his players reacted under pressure.

In the years between 2010 and 2014, Gary had also started to train his England team against men’s academy teams who were much quicker and, crucially, were very fast off the defensive line – a key part of New Zealand’s game that England had struggled to replicate in training scenarios. The training camps had become truly brutal as well. The hardest day of the week was ‘Toughen-up Tuesday’. The players took a ‘beasting’, Gary describes, in a horrendous physical and mental challenge. The players did a gruelling amount of strength and conditioning work before being split into two teams and playing a match. The team knew that selection decisions could be based on their performances in that match and they gave everything in those sessions, despite being physically exhausted. Everyone would be knackered, replicating how bodies often feel in a World Cup final, and Gary was testing who could make good decisions under that pressure.

In matches, Gary had rotated his squad so that every player was gaining valuable experience. When the 2014 World Cup squad of 26 was announced, his strongest XV had an average of 50 caps and the rest had an average of 33. The team had also taken some professional contracts before the tournament which had helped them prepare as best they could. ‘It just felt different,’ Emily Scarratt reflects. ‘In terms of the preparation, the training we had done, I think we just felt like we were the best prepared we could possibly be, so if it wasn’t to be it wasn’t because we hadn’t done everything right.’ By the time the World Cup, hosted in France, came around, Gary felt confident that his team would lift the trophy, but it wasn’t without one final spanner in the works that threatened everything.

Jessica Hayden is one of the most trusted voices in women’s rugby. She was previously a women’s rugby journalist at The Times and the lead reporter of The Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards. She has written for titles including the Guardian, Metro and RugbyPass as well as for World Rugby, the Paralympics and the British & Irish Lions. In addition to her journalism, Jessica is a regular contributor to BBC Radio’s rugby coverage. Since 2020, she has sat on the Six Nations panel that decides the championship shortlist for both the men’s and women’s tournaments.

  • Hardback | Pub: 07 Mar 2024

    In January 2019, England’s Red Roses became the first fully professional women’s rugby team in the world – their abiding mission being to win back the Rugby World Cup. After their narrow defeat against New Zealand in 2017, the formidable squad…

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