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Reneeqa Bonner preparing for last dance with England U20s

EXETER, ENGLAND - JUNE 22: Reneeqa Bonner of Bristol Bears is challenged by Pip Hendy of Gloucester-Hartpury during the Allianz Premiership Women's Rugby Final match between Bristol Bears and Gloucester-Hartpury at Sandy Park on June 22, 2024 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

Any reservations Reneeqa Bonner felt about heading into England U20s camp following Bristol Bears’ Premiership Women’s Rugby final defeat to Gloucester-Hartpury have thankfully proved misplaced.

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Bonner impressed at Sandy Park last month, playing the full 80 minutes, but was unable to prevent Bristol falling to an agonising 36-24 defeat.

It would be understandable had Bonner, coincidentally a student at Hartpury University, felt nervous about joining up with a squad featuring four players from the back-to-back champions and two – Steph Else and Millie Hyett – who appeared in the final.

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But the elusive winger is happy to report that England’s Circus troupe have not gloated about their domestic success during the build-up to the Six Nations Women’s Summer Series, which kicks off in Italy on Thursday.

“It’s fine,” Bonner tells RugbyPass. “They haven’t been as smug as I thought [they would be], they haven’t been rubbing it in.

“So, it’s actually been a joy to be around them and also getting their opinions on how they felt the game was. So yeah, it’s been nice.”

Bonner has enjoyed a breakthrough season for the Bears, scoring nine tries in 18 league and cup appearances to help her club to two finals.

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Those two showpiece matches ended in defeat – Saracens beat them to Allianz Cup glory in April – but having created history in getting to the PWR final, Bonner feels there is plenty to build on in Bristol both personally and as a team.

“I think I had a decent season. It’s definitely progressed since last season and that’s definitely because of the role models I have around me and just the general people and the staff, they really want the best for everyone,” Bonner says.

“It’s definitely a building block, and we’re hoping to come out on top next season. But to get to two finals this season, although we’ve lost both of them, I don’t think we’ve done that in past seasons.

“So, it’s definitely improvement on our part and we’re hoping to get to the next stage next year.”

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Bonner identifies Abby Dow as the player she most looks up to and she admits she has “a lot to improve on and… to learn” in order to scale the heights the England winger has.

That work will continue in Parma over the next 10 days as England face Ireland, Wales and France in the Women’s Summer Series, a competition featuring predominantly under-20s players.

Bonner’s assistant coach with England’s age-grade team, Sarah McKenna, is someone who knows what it takes to become a Red Rose, having won 45 caps, primarily in the back three.

“It’s been great,” Bonner says about working with McKenna. “She’s given a lot of advice and coaching and obviously she’s one of the best and she’s played for Red Roses how many times?

“I’ve definitely been taking all of her advice and her coaching points. And she’s helped me come off my wing and try to find things in play, which gets me settled into the game quicker, which I like.”

McKenna and head coach LJ Lewis are keen for their side to play an expansive style of rugby and playing outside the likes of Hyett and Saracens’ Amelia MacDougall in the England backline is certainly something Bonner enjoys.

“I love it,” the winger says. “They can distribute the ball so well and I think they’re really good at listening too.

“If you’ve got space on the wing or if you want a cross-field [kick] or a chip they’re really open to trusting you and putting the ball where the space is.”

Given she turned 20 in April, this is likely to be Bonner’s last involvement with Lewis’ squad, and she admitted this campaign has extra significance for those who won’t be around next season.

“A lot of people are aware that this could possibly be the last time wearing a rose,” she explains. “It’s quite personal, and it means a lot to a lot of players.

“So, we’re just trying to put our best foot forward out there on the pitch and play well.”

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That will start on Thursday when England take on Ireland in Parma. “They’re quite a nippy team,” Bonner says of the Irish.

“They love an off-load, so [we need to] try to shut the off-loads down and shut their plays down early and kill momentum.”

Eyes will naturally be drawn to England’s final game against France on July 14th but while Bonner says her teammates are determined to avenge the 74-0 defeat they suffered in Rouen in April, she insists they cannot afford to take their other opponents for granted.

“Definitely,” she says when asked if revenge was a motivating factor. “But I also think we need to focus on Ireland and Wales first.

“And when it comes to France, hopefully we can deal with, the scoreline and them in general a lot better.”

If Bonner continues to hit the heights she has this season, then a call-up to the senior England squad cannot be far away.

For inspiration in that regard, she need only look at England U20s team-mate Else, who was awarded an England transition contract at the start of June.

“She’s an amazing player. She deserves it so much,” Bonner says. “She’s put the work in too and it just shows that, if you put your head down and you want something, you can go and get it.”

There is little doubt it is what Bonner wants too. “That’s something I’m going to be working towards across the next few seasons.

“My ultimate goal is to be a Red Rose and a professional rugby player.”

England team to play Ireland (kick-off 17:30 BST):

15. Lia Green 14. Sophie Hopkins 13. Millie Hyett 12. Carmela Morrall 11. Reneeqa Bonner 10. Amelia MacDougall 9. Tori Sellors 1. Chloe Flanagan 2. Lucy Calladine 3. Hannah Sams 4. Tyla Shirley 5. Lilli Ives Campion (captain) 6. Anna Richardson 7. Joia Bennett 8. Annabel Meta

Replacements: 16. Niamh Swailes 17. Amelia Williams 18. Kira Leat 19. Jorja Battishill 20. Ellie Roberts 21. Alex Wilkinson 22. Samantha Shiels 23. Millie David

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Tom 29 minutes ago
All Blacks snatch another tight victory from England at Eden Park

First up to any of the ABs fans who accused us of “bluster” pre-series for saying it would be a competitive - I'm glad it turned out to be an excellent series to which the ABs were deserving winners and I hope next time a side tours you'll be a little more humble. I loved the heart shown by the English boys and how they managed to contain the AB attack for large parts of the series. Was very disappointed by the lack of cohesion and ambition ball in hand, we looked after the ball poorly and hardly went 2 phases without kicking it away. We're not giving ourselves enough opportunity to put phases together and build pressure. The ambition shown in the 6N against Ireland and France seems to have gone and our players look very hesitant with ball in hand, we look much better when Marcus is taking the ball flat and boys are running hard at the line. So frustrating when we're starting to build pressure in the 22 we go back to the grubber kick then find ourselves back on the half way line 10 seconds later. We've shown great success with our box kicking game but we need to leave the flipping grubber kick in the locker room. Like the Marcus Smith hail Mary miss pass that went straight to Mark Telea, we seem to have no patience. Sometimes we just need to recycle the ball and go again. Loving seeing Maro back to his best and Fin Baxter really impressed, Alex Mitchell looks to be one of the most complete 9s in world rugby, great around the base and impeccable kicking. Congrats to the ABs, far more dangerous and skillful than England. We contained you for large swathes but to shut down that amount of pace and skill for 80 mins is nigh on impossible. Managed to find a way to win and instinctively grabbed the rare opportunities which came your way. Finding ways to win in two tight test matches will I'm sure be a great experience for your younger players. Beauden needs to be in the starting 15, what a worldie.

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