England’s Red Roses are looking every inch like the team to beat in this year’s rugby World Cup, a former tournament-winning captain has said.
Karen Almond, 59, who in 1994 became the first English player – male or female – to lift a XVs World Cup, was speaking after picking up an MBE for her services to women’s rugby.
She said: “England’s chances are very good and they are looking very strong at the moment.
“At the moment England would have to be the very strong favourites. However, the competition is in New Zealand and you never discount the New Zealand team.
“There are also the French to consider as they are a very strong team. It is not going to be easy but I do think England have got a very good chance.
“They have very good strength in depth. They are very professional and very prepared.”
The former England rugby captain said she was “chuffed”, and collecting her “very special” award from the Duke of Cambridge at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace.
England became the second team to lift the trophy in 1994, following on from the United States’ triumph in the inaugural 1991 competition.
The Red Roses beat the defending champions 38-23 in Edinburgh to lift the first of England’s two Women’s Rugby World Cup titles to date.
Ms Almond said: “It is very special to win the World Cup. At the time we were just playing in the tournament and trying to avenge the defeat from 1991.
“As the years have gone by you realise how special that moment was.”
Ms Almond said it had been a “bit of mammoth” task to the collect her MBE as she travelled from her home in Christchurch, New Zealand, and brought her relatives down from their homes in Hull, East Yorkshire, including her 86-year-old father David to celebrate.
Being back in England has also given her the chance to reconnect with some old team mates that she had lost touch with, and “this has been very special,” according to Ms Almond.
England women are currently ranked number one in the world and New Zealand’s Black Ferns are the world champions.
The postponed World Cup 2021 is now set to take place in New Zealand in October.
The women’s World Cup will expand from 12 to 16 teams for the first time in 2025 when England host the tournament and “the aim is to sell out Twickenham for the final, which would be pretty awesome”.
She believes the World Cup will help to advance all women’s sport.
She recalled: “(When I played) people never knew about women’s rugby. They did not know that women played the sport and the people who came did not know our names. It was not as accessible as it is now and was not shown on TV.”
Ms Almond discovered rugby as a middle-distance track and field athlete at Loughborough University and went on to become an outstanding fly-half.
She was selected for the first Great Britain side that played France at Richmond in 1986.
A year later, she was part of the first England women’s team, which took on and defeated Wales at Pontypool Park.
She took on the England captaincy in 1988 and led the team for six years.
Ms Almond was a founder member of Wasps, and in 1990 she helped them win a league and cup double, before leading England to the inaugural Women’s World Cup final in 1991.
She then joined Saracens and claimed league, cup and sevens titles, before taking England again to the World Cup final but this time coming away victorious.
After the tournament, she went on a Saracens tour to New Zealand and gave up her teaching job to stay out there and travel around.
Ms Almond played her last game for her native country during England’s 1997 tour of New Zealand.