England Women on road to world domination: five key learnings from victorious autumn campaign

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  • Simon Middleton
    English rugby union footballer and coach, and rugby league footballer
Simon Middleton has likened England's Helena Rowland to Jonny Wilkinson - PA
Simon Middleton has likened England's Helena Rowland to Jonny Wilkinson - PA

England stretched their winning run to 18 consecutive Tests with a 89-0 rout over the USA at the weekend to round off a dominant autumn campaign with a flourish.

This month, Simon Middleton’s side twice cruised to victory over world champions New Zealand with two statement performances that has installed them as the frontrunners to win next year’s World Cup.

England’s next big test will come against rivals France in the 2022 Six Nations, which is likely to be staged in an April-May window next year. Les Bleues remain England’s closest World Cup challengers, having matched the Red Roses by beating New Zealand twice this month.

So what have we learned from England’s victorious autumn campaign, and how have they come to dominate the women’s game?

Zoe Harrison fills England's big fly-half boots

England’s future fly-half has been a lengthy debate over the past year, but it is one which Saracens’ Harrison has now settled. Twelve months on from her predecessor Katy Daley-Mclean calling time on her international career, Harrison has claimed the number-10 shirt with a series of impressive performances, especially with her player of the match display in England’s first 43-12 win against New Zealand.

“We’ve seen her come out of her shell, both as a player and a leader,” acknowledged Simon Middleton, the England head coach. “She’s unrecognisable from the player who walked in through the door at the start of the autumn period. The growth that she’s displayed and the maturity that she’s displayed in terms of her leadership qualities and also her game.”

It was Helena Rowland - a player Middleton likened to Jonny Wilkinson “but with more pace” - who started at fly-half against the USA on Sunday and brought her A game to underline why she is still a viable option at 10. “In Zoe and in Helena Rowland, we’ve got two great players, which is what we needed after Katy left,” added Middleton.

England’s world domination is a product of the Premier 15s

While professionalism has undoubtedly played a part in England’s superiority, the squad is also reaping the fruits of the Premier 15s, the women’s top flight competition that the Rugby Football Union launched in 2017 to increase the player pool for national selection.

Such are the growing standards of the domestic women’s game that Middleton is now able to cherry pick those who have shone for their club. A good example of this is Maud Muir, the Wasps tighthead who is certainly staking her claim to be on the plane to New Zealand next year.

To give an idea of the ridiculous depth within England’s squad, 28 non-contracted players have been called up to the Red Roses squad since July 2019 - the equivalent to the number of full-time England players. Ten of those were part of England's autumn squad - and Middleton hinted at the potential for some to be offered a contract heading into the World Cup. “I would be massively surprised if there isn’t a number - and potentially a significant number - of non-contracted players who either become contracted or go to the World Cup as non-contracted players,” he said. “The World Cup is not exclusive to contracted players, and we have to identify those players and try to support them as best we can.”

England’s expanded leadership group

With less than a year to go until the World Cup and with Emily Scarratt still recovering from a broken leg, Middleton made it his priority to strengthen his side’s leadership group during the autumn. Poppy Cleall and Zoe Aldcroft - who were both nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year last week - have excelled when handed the captaincy role. Scrumhalf Leanne Infante has also underlined her skills stepping up as vice-captain with real maturity, especially considering she has only just returned from injury and is even yet to feature for new club Bristol in the Premier 15s.

Women’s game breaks into new broadcast territory

This was the first time in history that four consecutive England women’s Tests were broadcast on terrestrial television outside of a World Cup. Over one million tuned into BBC 2’s coverage of the Red Roses’ win over Canada - a significant increase on the six-figure viewing figures for their back-to-back Tests against the Black Ferns.

More exposure, however, does not necessarily equate to bigger attendances. The Canada game at Twickenham Stoop had the lowest crowd attendance (6,310) out of all of England’s four fixtures, despite it being in the heartland of English rugby. With the BBC looking increasingly likely to cover all of England's Six Nations campaign next year on its main network, the RFU will be tasked with a new challenge - how do you strike the balance between filling a stadium and hitting high TV audiences?

What remains of the wider women’s Test scene?

Ireland, who have had an eventful autumn after failing to qualify for next year’s World Cup, squeezed past Japan 12-15 in captain Ciara Griffin’s last game in green. They only managed a 20-10 win over the USA earlier this month, in a game charged with emotion after hooker Cliodhna Maloney hit out on social media at comments made by Anthony Eddy, the IRFU’s performance director, who claimed the team had been adequately supported by the union.

Scotland, meanwhile, took a confident step forward towards their goal of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in New Zealand after dismantling Japan 36-12 a week ago.

Wales, who will begin a new chapter next year with 10 players on professional contracts, ended a run of two years without a win with victories over Japan and South Africa. But they were denied an autumn clean sweep by Canada, who came from a try behind to seal a 24-7 win despite having Olivia Demerchant sent off for a dangerous tackle.

To put England’s command of the women’s game into context, they averaged nine tries a match during their autumn campaign and conceded just seven. A glance over how the other home nations fared this month, and the gulf in class (and investment) is painfully obvious.

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