‘Resounding’ is probably the best way to describe the Red Roses’ win in the WXV 1 decider with New Zealand in Auckland.
The 33-12 result ensured they finished as champions of the inaugural tournament and was made even sweeter with the announcement of captain Marlie Packer as World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Year in partnership with Mastercard during the post-match celebrations.
The margin of victory, meanwhile, extended England's lead at the top of the World Rugby Women's Rankings powered by Capgemini to 5.62 points.
So how did they do it? England arrived in New Zealand with a new-look side, an interim head coach and a lot of expectations, having followed up their TikTok Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam earlier in the year with two good wins over Canada.
Their first WXV 1 fixture pitted them against Australia in a rematch of last year’s Rugby World Cup quarter final, which England won 41-5, and yielded a remarkably similar scoreline.
The eventual 42-7 win at Sky Stadium was notable for more than just symmetry on the scoreboard though. It’s no secret that the Red Roses would utilise their lineout drive and mauling game, but the variations that they showed at set-piece and in open play were impressive.
Tries were scored in close and out wide, through Hannah Botterman, Ella Wyrwas, Jess Breach, Megan Jones and Packer herself with a double.
Add in a perfect night off the kicking tee by Holly Aitchison and it felt about as a good a start to the tournament as you could hope for. Ominously, coach Louis Deacon and Packer were saying this England side was far from the finished product.
“We’re on a journey as a new coaching team, so we’re learning all the time. What’s pleasing is that there’s balance in our team, we’re not just relying on set piece and maul.
“We do have that in our game and at times we can show a bit more, but it’s about understanding that balance at the minute,” said Deacon, as the action headed south to Dunedin and another date with Canada.
Atkin-Davies drives England on
That match again saw England showcase their attacking ability across the park, although it was built on their reliably powerful lineout.
Lark Atkin-Davies was the beneficiary of the set-piece dominance, scoring a record four tries. However, the back end of the game saw the Red Roses really cut loose, with Ellie Kildunne playing a leading hand in a couple of stunning long range tries to Breach and Claudia MacDonald.
Atkin-Davies picked up Player of the Match at the end of the 45-12 win, however the Red Roses hooker was quick to heap praise on her team mates.
“I have to give credit to my forwards,” she said. “Set piece is a really important part of this team’s identity. Everyone has to be doing their role and nailing their role.
“Luckily, I get to fall over the line at the end of it, but it takes every single forward to get to that moment.”
So, the stage was set for a highly anticipated rematch with New Zealand the following weekend in Auckland. The match would decide the winner of WXV 1 2023, but Packer was adamant that the team’s dramatic Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021 final defeat to the Black Ferns was not fuelling their motivation.
“We’re a totally different group,” she said.
“We’ve definitely grown since last year – not just the players but the coaching staff too. We’re all really looking forward to next week after setting our stall out in these first two matches.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Helena Rowland, who had missed last year’s final through injury. “There's been a lot of new stuff, new coaches, new ideas,” Rowland said.
“Which has been really refreshing for all of us and I think everyone's really welcomed that change.”
"It's a really exciting time"
Whatever was motivating the Red Roses clearly worked, because they got off to the best possible start in the decider.
New Zealand had to win with a bonus point to take the title, but that equation was immediately made more difficult as England went straight into the 22 and won a scrum five metres out. A huge shove saw Alex Matthews dive over, then Atkin-Davies picked up another lineout drive try shortly after.
Just to hammer home the advantage, Sarah Bern crossed in the 23rd minute, giving the Red Roses a 19-0 lead.
The inevitable comeback from the Black Ferns came either side of half-time, as they scored twice to close the gap to 19-12. The Red Roses didn’t panic though, consolidating possession and winning some crucial penalties to put them in excellent field position.
Packer said that cool heads were required, and that was the message she relayed to her side.
“We had to talk about what we needed to do, but we knew that what we're doing was right,” she said afterwards. “We just needed to step up another gear.”
From then on, the Red Roses patiently put their training into practice, setting up two excellent tries for Morwenna Talling and Zoe Aldcroft that made the game safe and the final score 33-12.
Deacon paid tribute to their opponents, though, saying that the Black Ferns “are an outstanding team”.
“They really tested us,” he added. “I think if you're going to go toe to toe with them, you've got to have all parts of the game going. And that's what the pleasing thing is.”
The other pleasing part is that it very much feels like this is just the start for this Red Roses side. An ecstatic Packer said her team’s culture was key to lifting the trophy.
“It's not about individuals in the group. It's about how we come as one and we put performances in like we did this tournament and back them up every time,” she said.
“As you know, it's a really exciting time to be a part of the Red Roses and very competitive.”