They may be in Whangarei, the most northerly large town in New Zealand, but it remains the most familiar of European rugby disputes. “Le Crunch,” murmurs England’s second row forward Abbie Ward, her tone reminiscent of a James Bond villain greeting an old adversary. “We know how tough it is every single time we play against France. We’ve played them more often than any other team in the world. We know them and they know us.”
Perhaps the keynote pool fixture of this World Cup also looms. The tournament needs a crackling, top-class contest to whet neutral appetites for what is to follow in the knockout stages. It is not impossible, either, that these two teams could have another rendezvous next month, which further explains the desire of England’s forwards to deliver a no-nonsense message of intent.
After 26 straight international victories and having just stuck 14 tries on Fiji in their opening game, it might be imagined the Red Roses have little left to prove in the above regard. Champion sides, though, instinctively sense when it is time to step up a gear and captain Sarah Hunter – about to equal Rocky Clark’s Test record of 137 caps – and her squad have had this particular date ringed in their diaries for months.
Small wonder their head coach, Simon Middleton, has opted for the most experienced of starting packs, one which contains a whopping 545 caps in total. Only two of the eight do not have more than 50 caps and the least experienced individual, Zoe Aldcroft, is the current World Player of the Year. There is collectively solid and then there is the teak-tough, hyper-competitive English ensemble.
Ward, 29, is a crucial cog in the Red Roses machine as the main lineout caller, happy to describe herself as a “nause” when it comes to set-piece nitty-gritty. Given she is married to Dave Ward, the former Harlequins hooker who also coaches her at Bristol Bears, and works closely with England’s forwards guru Louis Deacon, are there ever moments when she feels like switching off from it all? “Maybe they don’t have any escape from me,” she swiftly counters. “I love it. It’s an area of the game I really enjoy and I love all the detail and technical and strategic aspects. When it comes off you can’t not enjoy it.”
If the last meeting of the two sides is any guide there will be a lot of close-quarter action and any number of driven mauls. England clinched their fourth successive Six Nations title in Bayonne in April with a 24-12 victory, all three of them from rolling mauls with Ward touching down one of them. France’s two scores were also finished from a combined distance of about five metres and England have a good idea what is coming. “We talk about the maul a lot,” says Ward. “We both like to use it so it’ll be interesting to see how that might play out.”
It is a similar story in the scrum where England, with the fast-rising Maud Muir supplying further dynamism off the bench, are keen to set out their stall. “We know that France, historically, have a really good scrum,” says Ward, set to win her 58th cap. “It’s something they look to use and it’s been a weapon of theirs. But it’s an area where we’ve had really good growth and our props, in particular, have come on so much. We’re starting to find the scrum can be a weapon of ours as well.”
And why change too much when things are working? Deacon, who won 29 caps for the England’s men’s side, learned his trade at Leicester, where hard-nosed forward play came with the territory. Since joining the Red Roses setup 14 months ago he has been sharing that knowledge with anyone prepared to listen. “Deacs has been great,” says Ward. “He’s put a lot of our skills and processes under a microscope, which is important. For me personally I feel the set piece is all about the intricacies and being accurate. If you’ve got the technique and strategy right, you can turn it into a weapon. Deacs has enabled us to do that.”
As with any squad, though, simply being proficient in one area is not enough at the highest level. Having exhibited some early tournament nerves against Fiji, England know they need to hit their stride earlier this week if they wish to subdue the French. “They have had some changes of coaching staff and players have been rotating in and out but we know what to expect,” stresses Ward. “The level of rugby is going to be very high and the accuracy and flair France can bring means we can’t take anything for granted. We’re going to have to work for everything and be completely on it in terms of defence. I think it’s going to be quite special. We’re used to playing them in the autumn or in the Six Nations but to have them in our World Cup pool is something different. I think that gives it a bit of added spice.”
It has not all been hard yakka for England’s players, with social games of cricket and visits to local waterfalls offering some mental respite this week. Ultimately, though, they are not in New Zealand for the scenery or the leisure activities, and are refusing to be swayed, either, by the possibility of a £15,000 per person bonus from the Rugby Football Union should they win the tournament. “We’d be silly to be thinking about anything like that,” says Ward. “We know as a team that complacency will kill you. And although we have a lot of World Cup debutants it doesn’t mean they’re any less driven, either. They all know what’s at stake. It’s a tough squad to be part of in terms of being selected but it’s a brilliant place to be. You’re constantly being pushed in a really good, competitive way.”
By mid-November, with any luck, they will also have converted many more to the Red Roses cause, just as football’s Lionesses did in the summer. “For us as players it’s so important we perform week in, week out because that’s what’ll draw people in and inspire young boys and girls to take up rugby,” says Ward. “Look at the football and how exciting that was and how many people tuned in. That’s where we want to be heading. It’s just about showcasing that to the world now.”