With her incredible running game and vision, the versatile back is a dangerous attacking weapon for the Red Roses
Get to know the “phenomenal” Helena Rowland
When asked to select three photos that mean something to her for a team social, you might expect Helena Rowland to include an image from this year’s Six Nations Grand Slam campaign or last year’s Olympics, or perhaps the all-conquering Welwyn team she played in alongside current team-mates Zoe Harrison and Hannah Botterman as a teenager.
Instead, the 23-year-old chose one of her immediate family, one of her granny and one of her schoolfriends.
So nothing from her rugby career? “I wanted to stay away from that,” she says. “Otherwise you’re just known for rugby and that’s you. My schoolfriends aren’t really into sport, so it’s a completely different side of things. I like the fact that I’m almost away from rugby with them and don’t have to talk about it all the time. We’re a close-knit group and do different things.
“I obviously love the sport, I love playing it and I like watching games, but it can’t be all the time. You need to switch off.”
Trying to replicate the feats of the England women’s teams of 1994 and 2014 comes with a lot of pressure, but that is something she enjoys. Even as a child, when playing in mixed teams having taken up the sport aged six (“my brother played and I wanted to do whatever he was doing – I was that competitive younger sibling!”), she was determined to prove she could be as good as the boys on her team when opponents spoke about targeting her as the only girl.
“Whatever it is, I’m very competitive,” she says. “And in professional sport all games come with pressure because you’re playing teams at the top of their game. You’ve got to embrace it and it’s why we play professional sport or sport in general. You want high-pressure games that come down to the wire – that’s how it should be.”
While Rowland has enjoyed a successful run with England since making her debut in late 2020, winning all of her first 20 Tests, she does know what it’s like to come out on the wrong side of high-pressure matches. At the Tokyo Olympics she was part of the Team GB side that lost to France in the semi-finals and then Fiji in the bronze medal match.
She still describes the experience as “unbelievable” and relished the opportunity to represent Great Britain on such a big sporting stage. On the back of all the upheaval England’s sevens players endured in the lead-up to the Games, with programmes cancelled and uncertainty rife, the fact that the combined squad made it to the last four is a decent achievement.
Playing sevens has brought individual benefits too. Rowland credits the abbreviated game with giving her more confidence in her decision-making when she returned to 15s. Where previously she might second guess, say, a counter-attacking move, now she backs her instincts.
“In sevens if you’re going to have a go, you’ve got to back yourself and have belief in yourself. That’s changed how I play a bit in 15s. I used to be concerned about having a go and it not coming off; now I’ll have a go and if it doesn’t come off, next time I’ll try something different.
“I don’t know if I was hesitant (previously), but I was a lot more process-driven – ‘This will create this scenario’, ‘Where now?’, ‘They’re doing this…’. Now it’s, ‘Let’s just go’.
“I love playing ball in hand and running it. That’s definitely my go-to. I love that side of the game; it’s really exciting and allows you to show what you can do.”
With that approach to the sport, it’s little surprise that she mentions Marcus Smith as a player she enjoys watching and draws inspiration from. She talks about how he takes the ball to the line and the ability to manipulate space, trying to get defenders to do certain things.
Rowland, too, is known for her broken-field running and vision, and Red Roses coach Simon Middleton recognises how sevens helped to boost her self-belief.
“She’s one of the players who came back positively from the sevens experience,” says Middleton. “It’s developed her game and impacted positively on her confidence, which is fantastic. Helena’s a very instinctive player, she can create something from nothing. She can see things and exploit what she sees; she’s a great attacker of space.”
That confidence boost has also seen Rowland grow as a leader. She isn’t too comfortable with public speaking but as a playmaker in the side knows she needs to contribute to discussions around game plans, set moves and so on.
“It’s a role I’m growing into,” she smiles. “I’m not particularly loud, I don’t relish speaking in front of a group, but being a fly-half is quite a key role, so it’s something I’m definitely trying to learn.
“The strategy group has key decision-makers and, as a fly-half, I’m in that and I’m trying to have more of a voice. Normally if there’s something I want to say I keep quiet, but I’m trying to push myself a bit more, to have more of a voice on how we set up, how we want to play, that sort of thing.”
While Rowland is seen primarily as a fly-half, she has also worn the 12 and 15 shirts for England this year. Versatility isn’t always seen as a positive in rugby, that ability to play multiple positions can make people ideal replacements.
Rowland, however, is enjoying taking the field with different numbers on her back and seeing the game from different perspectives – and the fact that she is integral to the team means those numbers start with a one rather than a two.
Before this year’s Six Nations match against Ireland, she had only played full-back a couple of times – once while at Saracens in the first season of the Premier 15s, once in an U15s game – but the position does allow her to lean into her natural instincts to counter-attack.
If she is at inside-centre with Harrison at fly-half, the two can interchange as first receiver depending on who is where on the pitch. It allows England to field two playmakers, which has proved extremely effective over the past year.
“Being in the backfield, counter-attack is something you can look at,” she says of full-back. “It’s fairly similar to ten from a defensive point of view, but it gives you more freedom and licence to attack. You have a lot more time to see what you want to do, a bit more licence to run. That’s something I really enjoy and having more opportunity to do that in the 15 shirt is nice.
“At this point I’m loving playing different positions and learning how different but similar positions are. Going forward that can only be a good thing. I’m sure long-term I’ll specialise but I’m just enjoying being on the pitch, whatever number that may be.”
Emily Scarratt may be settled at outside-centre these days but she is another player in the Red Roses set-up who has moved around the back-line during her career. Middleton reckons Rowland is a similar talent to the Test centurion, saying: “She has such a great all-round skill-set – kick, run, pass – and she’s got great pace. Also, she’s a very good defender; she’s very tough, very physical, just really strong.
“I think she’s got the strongest all-round game since Emily Scarratt. What sets Scaz apart as a threat is she can do everything – she’s a threat with the ball, has great kicking skills, and understands game management. Helena is very much like Scaz in being able to do everything. Where Scaz has physicality, Helena has got pace. Blinding pace. And footwork too.
“She’s a phenomenal player. One of our challenges is where to play her.”
Asked if she’s one of the most exciting runners in the women’s game, he replies: “She’s one of the most exciting players full stop with the skill-set she has. Ball in hand, she’s deadly.”
It’s high praise from the coach and the Red Roses as a whole have been applauded for the strength of their game recently. After all, there has been a three-year unbeaten run, three successive Six Nations titles, record-breaking wins over the Black Ferns last autumn… Now it’s time to deliver at the World Cup. They topped their pool after wins over Fiji, France and South Africa, and now face Australia in the quarter-finals.
“We’ve worked very hard to get into the position we’re in and we’ve played a lot of tough games against the likes of France, New Zealand and Canada,” says Rowland of the world’s No 1 side. “When everyone is gunning for you it could be a distraction, but as a team we very much look at how we can get better; it’s about us.”
There’s no doubt the Red Roses are setting the standard in the women’s game and Rowland is one of the biggest attacking threats in their armoury. If she can be deployed effectively in the knockout stages, England will have a great chance of lifting the trophy.
This article originally appeared in Rugby World magazine’s November 2022 edition.
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