Why are England women on the cusp of a second consecutive Grand Slam? If one match was to be pinpointed it would be the Six Nations opener over 270 days ago when the Red Roses beat arch rivals France 19-13 away in Pau, and specifically the final three-and-a-half minutes of that game.
Needing to run down the clock, England claimed the ball from a lineout and simply clung on to it, driving and maintaining possession until time elapsed. In doing so they secured a highly-significant win, their first in France since 2012.
Part of that success could be put down to having a squad of 28 centrally-contracted players, with head coach Simon Middleton saying that has given his side an extra two to three per cent in terms of performance.
But there is another factor which is just as important: the desire, which Middleton has made no secret of, in becoming more “confrontational and aggressive”, with the forwards in particular told to learn a “ruthlessness” they feel has led to their recent victories.
That ambition was borne from the 41-32 World Cup Final loss to New Zealand in 2017 and the long-term goal has long been to go and reclaim the title in the Black Fern’s back yard next season. Securing the Grand Slam against Italy on Sunday will be a big step in the right direction.
“Confrontation became a headline point for us coming out of the World Cup in 2017 because the obvious thing staring us in the face is that we got schooled in the final by New Zealand,” Middleton told The Sunday Telegraph. “When they went to a very physical, direct game we struggled with that. We probably struggled to handle it tactically just as much as the physical side. We spoke a lot about needing to be more confrontational and more aggressive.
“When people think about confrontation they might think about people squaring up toe-to-toe, or aggressive ball-carriers or aggressive tacklers. I think there are more ways to be confrontational and ways in which you challenge your opposition. In general that is how we hope to play in terms of greater intensity and more dynamism.”
Confrontation and aggression are words that are spoken easily to describe aspects of the men’s game but have yet to enter the mainstream vocabulary in the women’s version of the sport. With England, though, that could now change.
Prop Vickii Cornborough says: “Aggression and dominance would have been very male-dominated terms 10 years ago. But when you think about it, just because you are domineering on the field, doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you very, very good at your sport.
“For me, what I am like on a rugby pitch isn’t what I am necessarily like off it, you don’t go around tackling people all day! It is very helpful not to have those stereotypes, it is about celebrating people for their attributes regardless of sport or gender.”
The issue of perception around what it means to be confrontational and aggressive is something back row Poppy Cleall has always been acutely aware of. “When people are trying to make a Premier 15s team when they are 18 or 19, they might think that those qualities come with a negative connotation but you need them to be successful. It is a term used in rugby you need to be successful,” she says.
“When I was a young player it came naturally to me to be confrontational and aggressive on the rugby pitch, but I noticed at that age that some of my team-mates weren’t and were averse to learning how to be because outside rugby confrontation and aggression are seen as negative things and you don’t want to be seen like that. But the most successful teams are confrontational and aggressive.
“If you were to look at rugby about 10 years ago, and to see a female player being confrontational or aggressive, people might say that is not how it should be. If I was to use players like Courtney Lawes or Maro Itoje as examples for the women’s games, people wouldn’t have thought about them but now it has moved to the stage where it is lauded and applauded that female rugby players can play like that. It is becoming a sport that you have to be in the gym putting in the work. International female teams are getting bigger and stronger.”
When England take to the field in Parma on Sunday afternoon, one player who epitomises this mean streak is 18-year-old Test debutant Morwenna Talling at lock. She is part of a new breed. Loughborough Lightning hooker and team-mate Lark Davies says producing players in the mould of Talling is how the women’s game is evolving. “I saw Morwenna last year as a team-mate, she was only 17 in the Premier 15s and she was so physical and aggressive and epitomises what it is like to be aggressive on the pitch.
“The younger ones are a lot more aggressive, confrontational and athletic. We are going to see women’s rugby players like you haven’t seen before and this is because of the off-field work they are doing with strength and conditioning, and the support they are getting from a younger age.”
Middleton believes that ruthlessness will be key to his players’ future success. He has altered training to drive this change and looks at Talling as a portent.
“The way we are training, if you are not physically on top of your game, you will get overtaken. You need to be not just able to survive but shine, that is why Morwenna Talling is starting. She has been one of the best and if that is the new breed of player, bring it on!”