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A wet Wednesday at base camp: A morning with the Red Roses

By Claire Thomas
Credit: RFU/Emma Ralph

Put simply, spending a few hours at Pennyhill Park on a cold and blustery Wednesday – in between rounds one and two of the Women’s Six Nations, and intermittent showers of cats, dogs, monkeys, devils, and pitchforks – is to watch the best team in the world work through one of their toughest training days.

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It’s observing a meticulous warm-up; half an hour of units drills; thirty further minutes where the backs run moves outdoors as the forwards run lifts, throws, and shoves in their cavernous 4G cathedral; and then a relentless chunk of 15-on-15 before lunch.

Ostensibly – it’s the better part of a morning’s rugby, ahead of an afternoon’s battle-hardening in the gym. An impressive operation, featuring 30-plus of the sport’s very best, and a troupe of coaches leaving no stone unturned as they march towards the succession of peaks looming on the horizon.

Wales at Ashton Gate this Saturday, a potential Grand Slam decider in Bordeaux next month, a Twickenham tussle with the Black Ferns later on in the year, and – eventually, the most formidable of them all – the 2025 World Cup. John Mitchell refers to it as their ‘Everest’, which feels appropriately Herculean.

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At points, as the rain buckets down and a sodden Jess Breach tucks frozen fingers beneath her armpits in between torpedoes along the touchline, it feels they’re at Base Camp already. These conditions – both the driving rain and the rarefied air – aren’t for the faint-hearted, but for those 18 short months away from that final. *The* final.

It’s also so much more than that. It’s the state-of-the-art facilities – like the giant screens on which individual plays are rewound, cued, and analysed for nuanced and immediate improvements.

It’s the slickness of it all, as the component parts of the overall session flow into one another like movements in a symphony, and reveal themselves to be as considered as a Taylor Swift Easter egg.

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Not only are things choreographed to perfection, so that not a minute is wasted and even the girls’ snack break is designed to simulate half-time in a Test match, but the coaches are constantly assessing the calibre of session they’re delivering. A ‘good’ week’s hustle isn’t just successful reps or performance targets ticked off: it’s how the staff fulfilled their roles, and how slickly the rose-adorned machinery operated.

It’s the coaches themselves. Nathan Catt, whose impact on England’s Six Nations-clinching U20s this year was enormous, and who’s dedicating swathes of time to one-on-one work with the front rowers – even packing down himself to illustrate points.

Lou Meadows, who’s crafting a system in which some of the game’s most blockbuster, defence-decimating attackers can both find touchpoints and express themselves.

Louis Deacon, whose scrum and maul session is a bubbling cauldron of intent and physicality.

Sarah Hunter, who misses nothing, and injects succinct individual pointers with a smile and 141 caps’ worth of experience.

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England men’s captain Jamie George, who’s popped down – of his own accord – to work with the Grand Slam-defending hookers after an uncharacteristically wonky day in the office in Parma.

Oh, and Mitchell himself, who had the entire squad’s names memorised before his first day in the tracksuit, and who breaks off from our conversation to check in with each and every athlete as they leave the paddock.

He’s been amazed by the way these women can be singing and joking en route to a Test match, but then effortlessly snap down their visors to become their most gladiatorial selves. The same team who had his headshot made into masks for his sixtieth last week, who insisted he oversee their Italian training run in a giant badge for that same birthday, and who shriek with delight whenever they win a round in their ongoing inter-squad competition.

Four colours, multiple opportunities to climb the leaderboard, and one team crowned winners at the end of each week. The prize? Coffees, on ‘Mitch’. They all speak about him with a huge amount of warmth and respect. The only foot he’s put wrong so far, by all accounts, is giving away to Maddie Feaunati that her parents were heading to Parma to surprise her on the occasion of her first cap…

The All Blacks are the only other squad he’s coached with such extraordinary depth, he says, but what excites him the most about these Red Roses is the fact that they’re not aware of their own enormous potential.

Their ceiling is towering – they’ve so much room to grow – and that’s a thrilling challenge for a man who, lest we forget, sought out and applied for this role of his own volition. Mitchell wasn’t courted by the RFU: he came to them, eager to guide England back to the summit of a World Cup podium.

He stalks the fringes of the final block of the session like an Umbro-sponsored dementor – cap low and vast hooded jacket zipped high – occasionally stabbing a whistle blast through the frog-strangling conditions before barking an order.

The players are really going for it by this point – hurtling at and past one another with all they have, whilst both self-policing standards and proving one another’s most fervent cheerleaders. It’s tough going, but they empty their world-class tanks, and then – without exception – stay on for extras.

Mo Hunt and Lucy Packer box kick again and again until they’ve each rattled the crossbar a few times, Abby Dow – who’s never looked stronger or more agile – hoovers up high balls, and the forwards smash pads as the rain continues to fall.

Also plummeting is Maud Muir, who takes a tumble over her own boots with absolutely no one around her. This, apparently, is a regular occurrence from the clumsiest member of the squad, who accidentally skated all the way from the dressing rooms to the ice baths last week: her Birkenstocks about as useful as a chocolate teapot as she careered down the steep grassy slope.

The ice baths are, perhaps, my favourite part. The final hurdle between the gruelling session and lunch in the warm – tottered towards in sliders, garish swimwear, and towels – and tackled with approaches ranging from silent resignation (Sadia Kabeya) to squeals and sheer melodrama (most of them, to be honest).

Abbie Ward was stoic, Hannah Botterman demanding regular updates on exactly how much longer she had to endure, and Hunt stayed in for a couple of extra agonising minutes to keep Sydney Gregson – the last to arrive – company. All incredibly on-brand. One by one, the myriad timers released the redder-than-ever Roses, and their morning’s work was done. Lunch. Gym. Thai takeaway. Scene. Another Wednesday’s honing in the books.

There you have it. Not a review of a Parma, which displayed problem-solving and colossal individual talent, if not accuracy or instinctive attacking cohesion (yet). Nor a preview of a Bristolian battle which promises lashings of physicality and ambition before a crowd of 18,000.

Hopefully, though, a glimpse of what’s taking place out in Bagshot, where the world’s best are – with the soft rumble of distant thunder – preparing to conquer Everest.

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Antony 74 days ago

‘Like an Umbro-sponsored dementor…’ Love it. And lovely insight into a bit of the (very human) machine behind these top flight athletes.

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