Sarah Hunter’s Red Roses head for landmark thanks to training ‘hell’

History beckons for the Red Roses. A win against the USA on Sunday and Simon Middleton’s England Women will equal the record for most consecutive Test wins – 18 – held by their country’s men’s team and that of New Zealand. One more after that and they will stand alone as a true dynastic force.

“We’ve got a chance to do something really special and we want it,” says the head coach before the final fixture of the autumn series in which his side have racked up 151 points, conceding just 39, in three games – two against New Zealand and one against Canada. “This is the chance to make a statement that will resonate across our sport.”

It is a remarkable position England Women find themselves in but one that is not wholly unexpected. In September 2018 the Rugby Football Union offered full-time contracts to 28 players. It was a landmark move that meant the Red Roses would be the only fully professional team on the women’s circuit competing against countries running on comparatively paltry budgets.

“It was a gamechanger,” Middleton says, also crediting the formation of the 10-team Premier 15s league established in 2017. “But the challenge was explaining that we hadn’t flicked a switch. The process would take time. Managing expectations was key.”

A commanding Six Nations title in 2019 pointed to a tangible return on the RFU’s investment but a 28-13 defeat to New Zealand, the same side who had beaten them 41-32 in the 2017 World Cup final, showed there was room for improvement. With a team now solely focused on their sport, Middleton had the valuable resource needed to find an extra gear.

“It was time, both on and off the practice field,” he says. “We’d been outmuscled by New Zealand, so I needed a gameplan that would see us maintain a higher intensity for longer. We needed to be able to perform under pressure to the final whistle.”

Under lockdown he devised a programme called field fatigue familiarisation (FFF), later rebranded physical pressure practice (PPP). Think Marcelo Bielsa’s murderball. “Except we thought of it first.”

Middleton unleashed a training drill that dials up the intensity beyond that found in a game. “Hell is a good word to describe it,” says the loose forward Sarah Beckett who, now 22, had played only one of her 21 games for England before the change. “We hate doing it, but we love what we get out of it.”

The results are telling. England now blow teams away in the second half. But none of it would be possible without the important rest and recovery period afforded to athletes with nothing else on their mind. “I now get paid to hang out on the couch,” jokes Sarah Hunter, the team’s captain and a veteran of 126 appearances. “I tell that to my mum and she just laughs. She knows that it wasn’t always like this.”

Hunter never imagined international rugby would be her life. After studying maths and sports science at Loughborough University, she worked at a car dealership before taking up an RFU coaching position. The freedom to train and travel with the Red Roses was tempered by her paid responsibilities that included covering the south-west of England from Gloucester to Cornwall.

“In retrospect I didn’t realise how tired I was most of the time,” the 2014 World Cup winner says. “Being able to switch off now, mentally and physically, means I can work harder in training. But I wouldn’t change anything. I’m glad I got some life experience before turning pro and I have a degree to fall back on. I try to encourage the younger girls to have an eye on the future.”

A new generation of players will never understand this dual life although they are reminded of what has come before. Sue Day, England’s top try scorer, with 61 from 59 games between 1997 and 2009, and the RFU’s chief operating and financial officer, emphasises the need for a connection with the past.

“A few of us old ladies shared our experiences with the team and they were very receptive,” she says. “There was Sue Dorrington and Carol Isherwood who helped organise the first World Cup themselves and would fetch players from the airport. It’s a proud legacy. We’ve come a long way.”

We have shown the world what is possible when you invest in women’s rugby
But one team cannot carry the load. As Middleton points out, battering sides by 50-point margins will keep fans and sponsors interested for only so long. More unions must follow to maintain the product.

“We like to believe that we’ve taken a leadership position,” says Day, pointing out that other unions, most recently Wales, have started offering some, but not all, of their national players full-time contracts. “We have shown the world what is possible when you invest in women’s rugby. We had nearly a million people watch our last game on the BBC. Newspapers are talking about us and our players are in demand. Hopefully other countries look at that and want to replicate our success.”

This vision of a grander mission has permeated throughout the organisation. Two practice matches against South Africa took place this week. “It’s great to play a role and help other teams progress,” says Beckett. Middleton adds: “We have a responsibility as the No 1 nation in the world at the minute.”

Egalitarianism can wait. Up next is an opportunity to go level with their male counterparts, who have had the luxury of professionalism for more than 25 years. After that, a shot at something no one else has achieved.