Poppy Cleall on secrets of an unbeaten season for England rugby team
Poppy Cleall gives exclusive insight into how England staged two winning masterclasses against world champions New Zealand last month to lay a milestone ahead of next year’s World Cup.
The double feat ended a phenomenal year for the Red Roses, who won their third straight Six Nations crown in the spring, en route to extend their winning streak to 18 consecutive tests.
Their victories over the Black Ferns also allowed them to retain their status as the top ranked team in women’s football. Simon Middleton’s side are heading to 2022 without having lost a game for more than two years.
In the two games against New Zealand we were an unrecognizable English side facing one that lost 41-32 to the Black Ferns in the 2017 World Cup final in Belfast. There were leaders all over the field. But our leadership off the pitch had also evolved.
We often talk about how much better a player is after returning from a World Cup or a major tournament, but we rarely talk about coaches in this context. Simon Middleton, our head coach, has really evolved. He reflects on the disappointment of 2017 and spares no effort as we prepare for next year’s World Cup.
Midds rolled the dice at the right time in terms of the blood of uncapped players who were surrounded by experienced heads. I remember him saying two years ago that you need depth in every position to win a World Cup. Considering that 20-30% of our elite performance squad – those with pro contracts – could be injured by the time of the World Cup, he was unequivocal in his methods of bringing new players into the setup. .
He won World Rugby’s Coach of the Year award and was a key asset in helping us organize these New Zealand victories.
On the ground, the changes spoke for themselves. Abbie Ward and Zoe Aldcroft who tirelessly stood up to form a new lock couple with Zoe Harrison, who I believe came of age during our fall series. Harrison has rebounded between 10 and 12 shirts over the years and has consistently been second to Katy Daley-Mclean before her retirement. But against the world champions, she cemented her place as opener. She was absolutely phenomenal in the first test – bringing the team together from start to finish at Sandy Park – and was flawless in the second as well.
Showing a total of 99 points against the world champions in both games was no small feat. Our quick starts at each meeting were a snapshot of a particular training session we do during camp. During the week we color code our days in a traffic light system. On red days we have what we call physical pressure practice – we prefer to call it PPP. It’s when we crank up the intensity and mimic a game day environment so the coaching staff know we are meeting our game day goals.
It was introduced by one of our new strength and conditioning trainers, Alex Martin, who analyzes player data on how many yards we have walked or accelerated throughout the session. We get our data back within 24 hours and sometimes it gets a bit of a competition. Vicky Fleetwood still smokes everyone – her high speed meters are crazy. We took advantage of that ferocity of training for both games – you don’t expect to be 21-0 after 15 minutes against the world champions.