Rugby World spent a day in camp with the world’s best women’s team
Behind the scenes with the Red Roses
Lunchtime is spent scrolling through photo libraries on their phones. Players have been asked to select three pictures that mean something to them to present at a team social the following day. Rugby World interrupts Marlie Packer as the Red Roses flanker debates which one of her son, Oliver, she should pick.
It’s all quite a contrast from the intensity of the morning’s training sessions. Having turned up the heat on the toaster at breakfast, resulting in several players tucking into toast that was, let’s say, crispier than they wanted, Packer proceeded to do the same at England’s Performance Centre at Pennyhill Park where she called for a “savage mindset” from her team-mates.
The 33-year-old Saracen finds it tricky to describe what the expression means, at least in a way that is printable, but the essence is giving everything, be it in a match or training.
“If you have one job, it’s doing that one job and doing that job as well as you can,” says Packer. “You’ve got to be legal but if there’s a 50-50 ball, it’s making sure we come out on top.
“We challenge each other well on the pitch; we all know the goal and buy into that and what we’re doing. It would be easy to take your foot off the gas after how the autumn Internationals and Six Nations went, but we’ve come back pushing again. There’s no let-up.”
She admits she may have been a little too eager on occasion on the day RW visits. She picked up a grade two MCL injury during the Bath block of training, which was focused on conditioning, and while she’s ahead of schedule she’s still keen to “push everything”.
She’s a bit overexuberant with a tackle pad aimed at Vicky Fleetwood in one session and later apologises; then, when she is doing a stint on a Wattbike while it’s 15 v 15 on the pitch (back-rows and front-rows rotate in and out), she is shouting encouragement from the sideline.
“That’s me all the time,” she smiles. “The strat group (strategy group of Zoe Aldcroft, Zoe Harrison, Sarah Hunter, Emily Scarratt and Abbie Ward that Packer has since been added to) say if I’ve got something to say, then say it. What I do at club I bring to England and vice versa. In a session I look to bring energy. It’s a good group, there are so many different players who bring energy.”
There are certainly other voices heard during the day RW spends in England camp, but Packer’s is the one that resonates most. The vocalness you see during a match is replicated in training, but it’s not all serious from Packer – there is plenty of joviality too.
Before making the short journey from their hotel in Bracknell to the training base in Bagshot after breakfast, the forwards and backs go through walkthrough sessions in the car park. For the pack, it’s some lineout drills and during one of these Hannah Botterman pulls down Packer’s shorts.
Apparently Packer is a regular ‘victim’ of the prop’s, whether it’s the shorts or pulling the cord out of the hood of a sweatshirt. Later, when Natasha Hunt has been mic’d up so the coaches can monitor communication, Packer leans in to make a few jokes for the analyst.
The competitiveness of Packer – and the squad – is evident in a game of spikeball (players serve and rally by hitting a ball off a springy net) that is part of their indoor warm-up on plastic turf.
Others do some dynamic stretches or use rollers, while the hookers do some lineout throws with Louis Deacon, all after they’ve had any strapping done, picked up their GPS unit and put in their instrumented mouthguard (players will wear these at the World Cup, too, to monitor head impacts).
The first session of the day is ‘collision craft’, which focuses on the contact area. To start with, players work in pairs on their shoulder hits and their tackle and ball presentation technique.
Then they split into three groups to work through set-ups involving tackle pads, looking at clearouts, support into contact and getting back into position following a breakdown so there are options in attack (something that is also a focus in the on-pitch session later). Packer is again in motivational mode, shouting “Hit me Lark, yes Lark” as hooker Davies powers into a pad.
“We want to improve our attack, be better with the ball, we want to keep building defensive stuff and the contact area,” says head coach Simon Middleton when asked about areas of focus ahead of the World Cup.
“We talk about the contact area a lot, we know the importance of it, but sometimes it gets overlooked, so we’ve brought in a specific session three times a week on that. There’s been really good development in that area.”
As the squad moves outside, the obligatory drone heads into the bright blue sky. Players form a huddle that ends with the chant “Red ROSES”, and then they split into forwards and backs. Scarratt has a watching brief as her training load is being managed but she still chips in with feedback and keeps an eye on the detail.
While the backs go through passing drills with Scott Bemand, it’s set-piece time for the forwards. The front-rowers work on their scrum engagement while the back-five forwards practise various lineout calls, then it’s a series of eight v eight scrums. “Yes, Berner,” says Packer after a decent shove from Sarah Bern.
Next comes unstructured mauls where Deacon chucks a ball into two groups of players and they look to set up – or stop – an effective maul, with the coach telling them to “remind each other of the detail” and Hunter calling on team-mates to “square up”.
This builds into competitive lineouts, with one set of forwards looking to drive the other over the line. As that part of the session draws to a close, Deacon is keen to emphasise that the players “should coach each other” and Bern stresses the need to “stay tight”.
As the whole squad comes back together, the focus switches to attack and running six v five drills in a relatively tight space, with the goal to give the scrum-half different options and work on communication. Packer highlights the need to let people know what you’re doing so others can react.
After water and ice towels – much needed in the heat – it’s time for the 15 v 15 segment. The specific goal on this particular day is ensuring that there are genuine attacking options on both the open and blind sides, encouraging players to get back into position quickly following a breakdown and ‘reload’, as was worked on earlier.
“We did a lot of games-based stuff in Bath to get conditioning and fitness. Now the focus is much more around integrating the physical aspects into the specific game model,” explains Robin Eager, who replaced Alex Martin – now at Bath – as the physical performance lead over the summer.
“Everything we do on grass now relates to how we want to play the game; it’s integrating my work as an S&C coach and still getting the physical development required.
“One thing that is driven from Midds at the top is we want the squad to be extremely competitive. We want the girls to push each other, so we drive our own standards. This period at Pennyhill is potentially the most challenging from a training perspective and the girls are working really hard and responding well.”
Eager has a loudspeaker to call out changes when it comes to swapping people in and out, and explains that teams will be mixed up in different sessions so players work in various combinations.
He says: “As it’s more specific match elements, it’s to ensure players have variety with those they train with. If Mo Hunt and Leanne Infante are always on Zoe Harrison’s team, they never play with Helena Rowland, for example. It’s really important.”
Amber Reed produces the standout moment of the ‘match’ with a dummy, break and deft back-handed pass to Jess Breach, who bursts through. Lydia Thompson also makes some impressive reads in defence, coming off her wing to close down attacks, while Alex Matthews cuts a great line to link up with Tatyana Heard.
More water and ice towels are brought onto the pitch at the session’s conclusion while the strategy group has a debrief and the goalkickers take a few shots between the posts.
Then it’s back to the hotel to refuel – teriyaki salmon and chicken are on the menu. Gym sessions follow lunch, first forwards, then backs.
It’s a pretty relaxed atmosphere as players work through their individual programmes and there’s an interesting mix of music, from Snoop Dogg to Abba, as the collections on various players’ phones are linked up to the speaker.
It’s all about making sure the players are in the best physical and mental shape to perform at the World Cup in New Zealand.
Eager and the coaches have plans in place to help players acclimatise as quickly as possible, with ways to help their body clocks transition even before they got on the plane – training later in the day, moving mealtimes, monitoring sleep patterns and heart-rate variability…
Helen Davis, the team’s sport psychologist, has also been talking to players about what has helped them on previous tours, so they can create the best environment away from home.
And expect the Red Roses to show that savage mindset at the World Cup.
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Rugby World. The magazine’s ultimate Rugby World Cup 2022 guide is on sale now.
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