Red Roses return to Twickenham with women’s rugby ready for next step

Another big crowd is expected at the home of English rugby as Ireland visit in round four of the Women’s Six Nations

Harry Latham-Coyle
Friday 19 April 2024 12:01 BST
The Red Roses return to Twickenham with another big crowd expected
The Red Roses return to Twickenham with another big crowd expected (Getty Images)

Peering through the windows on the team bus, the Red Roses were virtually pinching themselves. It was the end of the 2023 Women’s Six Nations and England had at last been afforded an opportunity to play a standalone fixture at Twickenham, France the opposition with a grand slam title on the line. As they made the short journey from their hotel to the ground, the anticipation, and goosebumps, grew, the squad looking out on rows of people clambering over one another to get a sight of their England stars.

“I’m still blown away by it,” scrum half Lucy Packer recalls ahead of the Red Roses’ return to Twickenham on Saturday. “That bus journey to the stadium was amazing.

“I couldn’t believe that all the fans were there for our game, it was crazy. Walking through the tunnel, I remember all of those little details – it shows where the game has got to. To be able to experience that again this weekend is amazing. I’m still getting used to it.”

England’s players were blown away by the support at Twickenham last year
England’s players were blown away by the support at Twickenham last year (Getty Images)

The crowd for the encounter with Ireland will not quite reach the record figure of 58,498 set last year but will be further proof of progress. The grand old ground will again play host to a more diverse, younger spectatorship than is typical. It is thought that nearly half of those in attendance for the France fixture last year had not been to Twickenham before – with the Red Roses rampant at the end of the first half, they created a remarkable atmosphere.

“Whenever the ball would get into the wider channels, you could really hear the crowd,” says Packer. “You hear the crowd as you get into the opposition 22 or get the ball to the edge, you feel that energy and excitement. It’s tough in moments where you have really got to switch on and make sure that our communications on the pitch are good.”

England have learned from the experience and better prepared for the extra noise this time around, booming speakers utilised at their Monday training session to try and challenge their leaders to hone their communication. A bit of Sophie Ellis-Bextor has been added to their workout playlist, too, the “Murder on the Dancefloor” singer set to provide a half-time groove as the Rugby Football Union (RFU) continues to enhance the matchday experience for the audience.

An improving Ireland coming off an excellent win over Wales have promised to “fire some shots” but, as ever in this competition, the expectation will be of a crushing England win. Worryingly for those playing catch up, the Red Roses seem to have found new gears in this campaign, embracing an attacking style that enables them to be more multitudinous.

Lucy Packer enjoyed a breakthrough performance at Twickenham last year
Lucy Packer enjoyed a breakthrough performance at Twickenham last year (Getty Images)

After a breakthrough performance at Twickenham last year, Packer will begin on the bench against Ireland behind the experienced Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt with John Mitchell keen for his replacements to provide greater impact. A reserved character, it has taken time for the Harlequins scrum half to find her feet in international rugby but, when fit, she’s been in every England matchday squad since the end of the last World Cup.

“The coaches are really big on taking the handbrake off and going after it,” the 24-year-old explains. “That’s something I’m working on. They want to give us licence to try things and feel like we are being backed when we do it.

“I’m always quite stressed in high-pressure environments, but I’ve found myself settled a lot sooner coming into camps. I’m really comfortable in the group. I’m really shy, but having to be in meetings or lead on certain things, I’ve grown so much as a person.”

Part of Saturday’s festivities at Twickenham will be a pre-match lunch for the World Cup-winning England squads of 1994 and 2014, celebrating the anniversaries of the two triumphs. Gary Street, who guided England to the second of those wins in Paris a decade ago, will be in attendance as he continues his recovery from a major stroke, with fundraising efforts ongoing to help one of rugby’s friendliest faces on what will be a long journey.

Gary Street (right) coached England to World Cup triumph in 2014
Gary Street (right) coached England to World Cup triumph in 2014 (Getty Images)

The support shown by all those who have known Street speaks to his character. Both during his time with England, and latterly at Harlequins, the coach has had a role in the development of so many current and former Red Roses, both as players and, crucially, people. On the afternoon on which we speak, Packer is about to make her latest visit to the Street family home having been a regular presence during his recovery.

“When I went across to Quins, I hadn’t played 15s for a senior side yet, so that was my first experience of that,” says Packer. “The mentoring of Gary Street really helped me. I went to an open trial at Quins and he spent half an hour just talking to me, passing with me. I was really, really shy at that point.

“I signed with Quins, and he came around my house and taught me how to cook and chop – everything. I used to go home every weekend because I’m close to my family and they were worried about me being away. Knowing that Gary was there put them at ease. My mum still talks about how being able to pick up the phone and knowing Gary was there was really settling for her.”

Lucy Packer credits her rugby career to Gary Street
Lucy Packer credits her rugby career to Gary Street (Getty Images)

Like the rest of the past greats in attendance on Saturday, Street can watch on with a smile knowing the part he played in getting the game to this point. The Red Roses are set to be back at Twickenham in the autumn for an eagerly-anticipated clash with the Black Ferns, as preparations start to ramp up for next summer’s World Cup.

For now, though, England are fully focussed on securing a sixth successive Six Nations crown with a tough trip to Bordeaux to come. Despite the sizeable scorelines, Packer and her teammates are clear that the Red Roses have more to come.

“We know Ireland are going to be a challenge, but a lot of the focus is on ourselves, sticking to our gameplan and executing it. We are always really critical of ourselves. After every game, we know that we have left tries out there. We want to be bettering ourselves in every game.”

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