“I was heartbroken” says Red Roses player Lydia Thompson about the lost Rugby World Cup final in 2017 that saw England walk away with the silver medal, despite the winger scoring a solo try from the half-way line. England is likely to face winners and this year’s hosts New Zealand again in this year’s tournament. Despite the setbacks across the world, this is the year the Red Roses wish to cure their heartbreak by lifting the winner’s trophy. I spoke to three Red Roses: Claudia MacDonald, Lydia Thompson and Marlie Packer about the year ahead for women’s rugby.

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The first focus of all three players is the Women’s Six Nations, which takes place in a new format and in a new Spring-time window. “I’m so grateful that we have rugby back going,” said Thompson. The Worcester winger thinks the new format and timing of the Women’s Six Nations poses a new opportunity for the women’s game. “The Women’s Six Nations will be the biggest rugby that’s going on at that moment. All those fans that might be torn whether they watch the men’s game or the women’s game now have a clear and easy decision. That is potentially exciting.

“That part of the calendar is where things come to an end and there are just finals, whereas this is going to be a really big tournament. I’m really excited as this might be a really good and competitive tournament to build up to the World Cup.”

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Wasps scrum-half MacDonald is similarly excited, but notes that it will be a shame not to play all the teams in the Six Nations. “We’re really fortunate to be able to play sports at the moment when there are so many who aren’t able to,” the 25-year-old says. “Having our own window means all those rugby fans can come and watch women’s rugby.”

Saracens and England flanker Packer is the most experienced player in the trio, with 74 caps for her country. “I think it’s really exciting to have our own window not in the shadow of the men’s Six Nations”, she says. “The new format is going to be different. For me, the Six Nations means you play all the nations, but this is what we are doing this season. It’s going to be exciting and I’m really looking forward to playing in it.”

While the Women’s Six Nations remains at the forefront of their minds, they all say it’s a building block towards Rugby World Cup 2021. “We are hoping at the end of the World Cup we’re there lifting the trophy,” says MacDonald, who is yet to go to a Rugby World Cup having joined the England squad on an EPS (part-time) contract in January 2019. “The Rugby World Cup is constantly at the back of my mind at the moment. It’s what we are driving towards, and it’s getting closer all the time. There is definitely some excitement around it, so I’m really looking forward to hopefully playing some good rugby!”

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Packer has two Rugby World Cups under her belt, and says that despite the pandemic, this year feels no different to the usual build up. “We’ve all got the same drivers and the overall goal is the World Cup,” the 31-year-old says. “The Six Nations is the next goal for us as individual players and as an England squad, but it’s very exciting to have a World Cup coming up.

“Just the fact that it’s going ahead is incredible in these times, so we’ve all got that drive to want to be there.”

Thompson says it’s still “weird” to start talking about the Rugby World Cup. “Even going back to club rugby was a huge thing, and we feel so grateful that we are in that position,” she says. “Now I’m thinking ahead, that the Rugby World Cup could carry on, it just feels incredible. Al the backroom staff and our manager go above and beyond with the logistical side to put something like this together, it’s incredible.”

Unlike MacDonald, Thompson knows the nerves of waiting to find out if you will be part of the World Cup side. The anticipation is no different for the women, who commit so much for the chance to represent their country. Both Thompson and Packer mention the pride of representing your country at a Rugby World Cup. “You never know what the final squad is going to be,” Thompson says, “and until you get that email to say you’re in the squad, or you’re on the plane, you just don’t know.

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“You know that the best squad needs to go out, so you hope you’re a part of that but if it’s not meant to be it’s not meant to be. But it would be amazing to go out to New Zealand and pick up that trophy. I was heartbroken to come away with silver in 2017, so it would be awesome to get the gold.”

The fan base of women’s rugby is growing at the international and domestic level. The England v France autumn fixtures on BBC Two brought in crowds of over 700,000 viewers, and the recent Exeter v Saracens Premier 15s clash had a record-breaking 125,000 views across different channels. The weekly figures are impressive too, with almost 50,000 (47,511) streams of last weekend’s Premier 15s action.

Packer has noticed a shift in the number of people who are watching women’s rugby, and stressed the importance of having games on television. “I think that showcases what people are doing off the field as well as people’s following on social media,” the Saracens flanker says. “Today we have been working with England partner Mitsubishi, and they want us to do the same as the men. I think that just shows the shift that is coming as more people support the women’s game.

“Having the autumn games on BBC Two was great. As a free channel, that gets people to tune in and watch us do what we do. Being on prime-time television shows what a massive support shift there has been.”

MacDonald came to rugby at 19-years-old, captaining Durham University women’s rugby team in the 2017/18 season. Now 25-year-old, she is on a full-time England contract, a testament to her talent and hard work in the last six years. For the scrum-half, it’s more important than ever that rugby is accessible for young girls.

“There’s that old cliché ‘if they can’t see it, they can’t be it’,” laughs MacDonald, “but if they generate false ideas about who plays rugby and therefore think that they can’t play rugby because they’re not big enough or whatever, that is bad.

“Having women’s rugby on television also just shows what you can do with rugby. It encourages young players to stay in it, because they can see for themselves that they could have a sustainable career in it, if that’s what they want to do. They can kind of look forward to playing with the players they see on the screen, or they can try to be those players that they look up to.”

The commitment of women’s rugby players across the world is inspiring, with the physical and social commitments needed to play the sport they love. Of course, all sacrifices and jobs are put into perspective by the coronavirus pandemic that has changed all lives and extended the workloads of many on the front line. The players are clear that they just feel so fortunate to be able to play and train with the coronavirus safety measures in place.

While it’s been a terrible year for grassroots rugby, there have also been some fantastic stories of hardworking, inspiring people in the rugby community who have gone above and beyond to help others. Mitsubishi is offering RugbyPass readers the chance to nominate someone to win a video message from an England or Scotland rugby star: from both the men’s and women’s game.

I asked the three Red Roses who they would nominate for an award if given the chance. “Lots of teammates and Premier 15s players have also been involved with the NHS as doctors and nurses, so a really huge thanks to them as always,” MacDonald says. “Individually, I would have to nominate Flo Williams, who I think has worked so hard to raise the profile of women’s rugby. She’s caused a few stirs, she’s upset people, she had the difficult conversations and had been quite controversial at times.” For context, Williams has been one of the leading women’s rugby players to tackle social media abuse, challenged brands who have failed women’s rugby players, and has created lots of content to help promote the women’s game.

“The amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to create the content has been enormous,” says Williams’ teammate MacDonald. “I think it has really worked well in terms of raising the profile of women’s rugby, especially when people can’t watch it at the moment.”

Lydia Thompson similarly wished to pay tribute to those in the rugby community who have been working on the front line. “My own club captain Lyndsay O’Donnell has been on the front line as a physiotherapist, and my teammate Jo Brown is also a physiotherapist who has been working on the front line during this whole time. Katy Hornby, our doctor, went back into the NHS which I think is just incredible. As soon as the pandemic started she put herself forward.

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(Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP) (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

“Also, I’ve been really impressed with Rachael Burford. She’s really applied her skills to growing women’s and girls’ rugby during this time. She runs Girls Rugby Club, and even when all their face-to-face camps got cancelled overnight, she has been relentless in making sure that the growth of the women’s game has kept going. She’s an inspiration, she’s a role model to me. She’s really kept that momentum going when actually she could have had a year off. From a rugby perspective, my nomination would be Rachael.”

Yeovil-born Packer, while acknowledging the dedication of her teammates on the front line, spoke about the effect the various lockdowns have had on grassroots rugby. She nominates Paul Mayhew from Yeovil RFC who has been leading the club’s volunteering efforts since the start of the pandemic. “The rugby club has gone through a full refurbishment with new flooring and full decoration, basically to get the club to tip-top form ready for when the doors open to everyone so it’s in a good state.”

The coronavirus has impacted rugby at all levels, from the elite game to the grassroots clubs. I’ve already nominated a friend of mine, just because she is obsessed with Hannah Botterman and deserves a pick-me-up. You can join me in nominating a rugby fan or someone in the community to receive a Mitsubishi ‘motor-vation’ video from a England or Scotland star, and make someone’s day.

 

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