Investing in Red Roses reaps its rewards

It has already been an extraordinary couple of weeks for the Red Roses, England women’s rugby team.

First they beat New Zealand, the reigning world champions, by a record-breaking 31 points in Exeter. 

Then, they did it again. By 41 points – this time in front of a jubilant crowd in Northampton, winning 56-15.

Having scored 15 tries in two games against the very best in the world makes Simon Middleton’s overwhelming favourites to win the next World Cup, even though it isn’t being played on New Zealand’s home soil this time next year. 

But the manner in which England inflicted a second defeat on the Black Ferns last weekend suggests they have every reason to believe they can become world champions again.

It was the first time England had secured back-to-back victories over the Black Ferns since 2012. No side had ever scored more than 50 points against them either. And the afternoon also saw a record for hooker Amy Cokayne, who became the first England women’s player to score a hat-trick against New Zealand.

Captain Poppy Cleall described it as an “armchair ride” and you couldn’t disagree.

New Zealand will be reeling. With less than a year to go until they defend their World Cup in New Zealand, they have a long way to go to get close to England now.

Middleton, though, was keen to play down the achievement and insisted that there will be no room for complacency over the next 11 months.

“You take the glimpses of New Zealand’s best play today – and that’s what they’ll be next year. How they finished the game, that’s what they’ll take away. They’ll leave and they’ll go, ‘This is what we’re capable of’. They are an exceptional side and have some good players to come back in.” 

And hat-trick hero Cokayne added: “I don’t think you can ever write off a wounded New Zealand team. The story will be completely different in a year’s time. This is almost the start of a journey.”

Cokayne’s Harlequins team-mate Shaunagh Brown, though, writing her BBC column, was keen to celebrate just what investment in women’s sport can look like, in the aftermath of these two famous victories.

She wrote: “There are 28 Red Roses players on full-time contracts and the amount of time we get to spend together and the detail we get to put into our performances showed on the pitch.

“When people compare the men’s Premiership in this country to the women’s Premier 15s league, it is worth remembering that most of the women’s players have full-time jobs.

“The standard is going to be very different but, by the way, if you do give us the chance to be full-time rugby players and do give us the investment, this is what we can do: beat the five-time world champions twice with record winning margins.

“It is not even just in rugby: if you put money into a situation and belief into women, they come out better the other side.

“It is proving to other people that we can do it but more importantly it is about proving to ourselves and other women that we are worthy, we are here and we are not going anywhere – so you might as well work with us.

“If you invest in us, everything becomes better. There are no downsides for a men’s rugby team if they invest in a women’s rugby team. It is only going to grow the game.”

Brown’s mention of the men’s team was thrown into sharp relief when the England men’s rugby coach made an ill-judged comparison between his rising star fly-half Marcus Smith and Emma Raducanu, England’s newest tennis phenomenon.

Eddie Jones was trying to make a point about the “flood of distractions” that may come Smith’s way as he breaks into the England team and rightly earns widespread praise for his stunning performances. But his decision to compare Smith’s situation with Raducanu, and then suggesting she had somehow failed to live up to expectations since her US Open win was a spectacularly ill-judged observation.

Jones warned against becoming “ungrounded and said Raducanu “hasn’t done so well” since her Grand Slam win.

“Distractions can be the exposure they get in the media, the praise and criticism they get, groups of agents who see this guy as the next big thing.

“There’s a reason why the girl who won the US Open [Raducanu] hasn’t done so well afterwards. What have you seen her on? The front page of Vogue, the front page of Harper’s Bazaar, whatever it is, wearing Christian Dior clothes.

“He is grounded, but they all start off grounded. No-one starts with their feet off the ground or they don’t get in the team, or they don’t win a US Open. But there’s this flood of distractions that comes in that makes you ungrounded.”

BBC Radio 5 Live tennis commentator David Law was quick to respond to Jones’s comments, saying his remarks about Raducanu were “uninformed, irresponsible, sexist nonsense”.

Raducanu was ranked 338th in the world before reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in the summer, and was catapulted to 23rd in the rankings after winning her first major. And on Monday, she made her debut in the top 20.

Raducanu, who despite being the top seed lost in the first round at the WTA 250 tournament in Linz this week, insists that she will not allow her off-court activities to interfere with her training.

“I made it very, very clear to every single person in my team that I was not going to cancel one training session or practice session for any off-court commitments,” she said.

“That was a non-negotiable for me. I wanted to make sure that that is my priority and it is.” 

Telegraph sports writer Molly McElwee, who was this week nominated in the British Press Awards for Sports Journalist of the Year, questioned why Jones would pick a tennis analogy when there were so many examples in rugby he could have picked. “There are plenty of perfect examples to illustrate the perils of fame in rugby union,” she wrote.

“From punch-ups on tour, to drunken incidents, as well as disappointing showings on the pitch, the names of any number of male rugby stars – even some who have played for Jones’s England – could have sprung to mind.

She added: “Even daring to liken Smith’s performance to Raducanu’s other-worldly achievement in New York does a disservice to her. Twenty-eight minutes in an international friendly against an inferior Tonga side – however stellar those minutes were – is hardly comparable to the most unlikely individual sporting victory this century.  

“In referring to Raducanu – who is an adult – as a “young girl” Jones was not only being patronising but also sexist. Any woman who has been referred to as “girl”, “love” or “darling” in certain contexts, usually by senior-positioned men, can attest to how demeaning, disrespectful and even humiliating it can feel.

“That Jones was using Raducanu as an example of an athlete of diminished form is also laughable, and evidence of how ill-informed he is. If Raducanu had not won a single match for the rest of the year after the US Open, her season would still be regarded as wildly successful. 

“Then comes the predictable part, dismissing Raducanu’s savvy foray into fashion as a “distraction”. As frivolous as Jones may believe it to be, the Vogue photoshoot (which actually preceded her US Open win) and her appearance at the James Bond premiere wearing a sparkling Christian Dior dress helped Raducanu successfully tap into a multi-billion pound industry, earning her various lucrative endorsement deals.” 

Raducanu’s season is now finished and we expect to see her take centre stage again at the Australian Open in early 2022 – although we have a feeling we might see a bit more of her before the year is out, not least at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards where surely she will be voted the winner this year. And maybe the Red Roses might be in with a shout for team of the year too.

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