The walkway that meanders around Twickenham Stadium is lined with a series of plaques. Carrying a name underneath a single red rose, they commemorate figures that have left their mark on English rugby.
Outside the towering North Stand lies one such tile remembering Mick Burford, who represented Medway before spending over a decade as the Kent club’s treasurer and secretary. He may have died in January 2007 following a heart attack, but the former prop would be bursting with unbridled pride today.
Selected in England Women’s 26-player squad for next month’s tournament in France, his daughter Rachael Burford is standing on the eve of her third World Cup. An unfussy inside centre, she oozes composure in both attack and defence. But while a calm, clinical edge sets her apart on the field, Burford has not forgotten the fundamental lessons ingrained by her father.
“Dad was my rock,” she explains. “Whenever I played he’d be there, encouraging and making sure I enjoyed myself above anything. That’s what has kept me in the sport from the age of six.
“I remember when I was 13 I got invited to an England training session all the way up at Leamington RFC. The whole way there I thought it was a joke that I’d been invited. He just gently convinced me otherwise.
“We’re a close family and when he passed away it was a huge loss for all of us, but I knew he wouldn’t have wanted me to mope around. When I was hurting and missing him dearly, rugby kept me going because that was what I shared with him.”
A teenage Burford made an England debut at the 2006 World Cup in Canada. Mick and mum Renata huddled in front of a grainy internet feed to watch her two games. Though Rachael never got to play an international with her father on the sidelines, progress has continued apace.
Exactly 50 further appearances over the ensuing seven years mean Burford is one of 13 half-centurions in head coach Gary Street’s England party – one that has prepared for this coming mission over an unprecedented, exacting 11-week camp in Guildford.
Stuart Lancaster has addressed the group on the subject of team culture. Strength and conditioning coach Stuart Pickering is guiding a punishing schedule too. On the day I speak to Burford, she is two training sessions down with “rugby under fatigue” to go later – essentially a test of basic skills under a tsunami of lactic acid.
Having lost the last three finals to New Zealand, most recently a soul-shattering 13-10 reverse in 2010, the group is united and driven by the pain of disappointment. Crucially though, they refused to be defined by it.
Katherine Grainger, who racked up three consecutive Olympic silvers before rowing to glorious, cathartic gold at London 2012, has been another visitor to Surrey Sports Park. Burford wasn’t alone in feeling inspired, reinforcing Street’s assertion that “no team will want the World Cup more”.
“Katherine’s story is so similar to ours,” she says. “It would have been easy for her to think ‘I know how this goes, I get silver again.’
“Actually, it was all about the gold. She didn’t let go of her dream and dealt with her demons. The messages she gave us hit home – one step at a time, focus on the processes rather than the outcome.
“It’s easy to get caught up in our rivalry with New Zealand, but we are only concentrating on Samoa in the first pool game.”
England face Spain and Canada in Marcoussis after their opener against the Pacific Islanders on August 1. With Ireland and hosts France looking strong, the competition is far from a two-horse race. Not that Burford needs reminding.
“It’s a case of staying in the moment, taking it all in,” adds the 27 year-old. “We’re only there for 17 days and a maximum of five games. Then it’s all over. We want to bring the World Cup home – that’s our goal.”
For such a pivotal member of the England set-up, voted RPA Player of the Year for 2013 by her peers, Burford is fairly understated.
There is a tenacious streak, of course – she spends spare time at Medway CrossFit and has battled back from knee cartilage damage sustained on sevens duty just this April. However, her game is characterised by accurate execution.
Take England’s 35-3 win over Wales in March. Emily Scarratt bagged a brace of tries on the way to a 17-point performance that wowed the Twickenham Stoop. Burford was the real star, though. Without her decision-making and distribution amid some heavy midfield traffic, the scoreline would have been far tighter.
The best sides often include one centre who shuns the limelight to knuckle down on the nuts and bolts of what makes their backline tick – hitting an unselfish running-line to straighten up an attack, nailing their two-on-ones, organising a defensive drift. Burford’s self-effacing opinion on her role in Street’s team sends her straight into that mould.
“You can’t be predictable, but a big part of my game is doing the basics as best as I can. Sometimes it doesn’t need much to put people into space.
“I’m not a line-breaker that can run 70 metres and score a try. Our back three and the likes of Emily Scarratt can do that. It’s about finding out what you can do to help the team and understanding each other.
“We’re getting that right and that’s what will help us out in France.”
England Women have never been better equipped to conquer the world. Burford possesses precisely the right kind of personality to set standards and ensure their lofty goal is met.
Read our extensive Women’s World Cup preview in the August edition of Rugby World – out now! You can find out where to buy your copy here. Download the digital edition here.