The Red Roses lock was named World Rugby’s Women’s 15s Player of the Year for 2021


Get to know World Player of the Year Zoe Aldcroft

A bacon-and-egg bagel is always on the match-day breakfast menu for Zoe Aldcroft. The other part of her routine is checking her kit bag – boots, shirt, shorts, lucky Jonny Wilkinson doll… Er, sorry, what? “My friend’s gran knitted it for me – he’s in Toulon kit – and it comes in my bag to every game,” explains the Red Roses lock.

World Cup winner Wilkinson is amongst Aldcroft’s sporting heroes, and she certainly has the same drive to continually improve. Simon Middleton, the Red Roses head coach, has used the words “exceptional”, “consistent” and “sensation” to describe Aldcroft over the past couple of years – all adjectives that would have been applied to Wilkinson in his pomp.

And like Wilkinson, Aldcroft moved from one end of the country to the other to pursue her rugby dreams. She grew up doing multiple sports – netball, cricket, rowing, athletics as well as rugby – and was a keen dancer too, but the oval ball was the biggest draw and at 16 she swapped Yorkshire for Gloucestershire to enrol at Hartpury College.

“It was a big move and the first two weeks, being so far away from my mum and dad, I was homesick, but after that I settled down,” the 25-year-old recalls. “It was a good set-up, with the rugby girls in the same block, so it became a family-like environment.”

As well as studying for a BTEC in sport and performance, she was able to develop her rugby and she made her England debut as a teenager in 2016 before being part of the squad that reached the Rugby World Cup final a year later. Now she’s a regular in the starting XV building towards next year’s World Cup in New Zealand, with the aim of going one better and lifting the trophy.

The Gloucester-Hartpury second-row, who is also adept at blindside, is quick to recognise how much she has grown since the 2017 World Cup. She points to bettering her game understanding thanks to experienced players around her, as well as the ability to focus on analysis and recovery with a full-time contract.

“I definitely know a lot more, understand rugby a lot more – back then I’d run around like a headless chicken,” she says of her early international days.

“Being around players like Sarah Hunter, asking questions and just playing week in, week out, helps you grow as player. I ask as many questions as possible. I’m not afraid to ask them, even to double check so I 100% know what I’m doing, because that gives me confidence to go on the pitch. Sarah is very knowledgeable and a great leader.

“Having a contract has allowed me the freedom to see how it is to be a professional rugby player, dedicating everything to rugby – the recovery side, analysis side.

“We also do a lot of psychology work when training with England, working in pressure situations, so in big games, even though there’s still a lot of pressure, we think without pressure, think rationally. It’s called ‘Physical Pressure Practice’ and it’s horrible! We started doing it in the Six Nations and it helps with pressure, thinking about your thought processes.”

Her leadership credentials came to the fore in November when she captained England for the first time, against the USA, and her performances throughout the autumn, the sheer amount of work she got through, no doubt played a part in her being awarded World Rugby’s Women’s 15s Player of the Year gong.

Aldcroft’s route to Red Roses regular has not been without hurdles. There have been a couple of long-term injuries that disrupted her progress but she used that time to get to know her body, to learn how to spot any potential issues. She also ensured she had distractions so she could switch off from rugby and rehab, working in a bar in Gloucester and gardening amongst them.

She’s still keen on gardening – she and her boyfriend have built a firepit, along with completing some other DIY projects, at the house they bought last year – while their dog, Luna, keeps them busy.

She has also thought about life post-professional sport. She has a degree in sport and exercise science – started at Northumbria, finished at Hartpury – and would like to become a foot health practitioner. “A lot of people have manky feet, so I’d like the fact that I would be trying to make them nicer!”

For now, though, rugby is top of her agenda. And when she’s packing for New Zealand next year, you can be sure that the doll will be in her kit bag.

This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s December 2021 edition.

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