For England, this is personal. On Saturday, the Red Roses return to Auckland to reacquaint themselves with the world champion Black Ferns, a week shy of the one-year anniversary of their World Cup final defeat to New Zealand in the city.
England have played down the revenge angle this week, actively avoiding any sense of a quest for vengeance to focus on getting their preparation and detail right. But there are clearly wrongs to be righted from the defeat last year that broke a 30-game winning streak and England’s hearts.
“They’ll know that we are going to be absolutely gunning for them,” says England vice-captain Zoe Aldcroft, who starts Saturday’s match in the second row. “We want to prove to everyone that we are the number one team in the world.
“I think everyone is on the same page in terms of that we are moving forward. We have got this whole new feeling in camp. Spirits are really high at the moment and there is nothing more that we want to do than go out there and win. We’ve got to keep our heads looking forward.”
The venue is different – Mount Smart instead of Eden Park – but many of the combatants are the same. This is the marquee match of the inaugural WXV competition, a new tiered tournament designed to provide appropriate and regular playing opportunities for the world’s top 18 nations.
The first edition has not been free of problems, with crowds disappointing and the event unavoidably overshadowed by the World Cup in France. But WXV has delivered a couple of intriguing results, with France knocking off the world champions before suffering a major upset at the hands of an improving Australia.
The Black Ferns are absent of a few sevens stars but will have saved their best for a clash that remains the biggest in women’s rugby. Last year’s final was a thrilling contest, England surviving Lydia Thompson’s first half sending off to end two points short, a lost lineout five metres from the Black Ferns line was the difference between victory and defeat.
Aldcroft’s own final was ended 27 minutes in after failing a head injury assessment. It was a blow for a player who had developed into one of England’s most consistent performers across the World Cup cycle.
“I felt absolutely helpless,” Aldcroft recalls. “I was sat on the sideline begging the doctor to let me back on. It was just heart-breaking. I thought of everything we had been through as a team and a squad, everything we’d worked towards. It was a winning mindset.
“There was no doubt in our minds that we were going to win that final. But we have to get on with it. We are more than hungry to get back out there and put it right.”
All in the England camp insist that this is a new team and a new era, with the post-Six Nations regime change bringing a fresh perspective as England begin to gear up for a home World Cup in 2025. Aldcroft is now a fully established leader, appointed as an official vice-captain to Marlie Packer alongside Helena Rowland ahead of the campaign, helping to set the direction of a side that have achieved two wins from two since arriving in New Zealand.
New head coach John Mitchell has joined up with the Red Roses, initially in an observational role with interim boss Louis Deacon continuing to lead the day-to-day coaching. Already, Aldcroft stresses, a different culture has been cultivated by a bigger, broader staff that includes ex-captain Sarah Hunter and veteran coach Brian Ashton in a consultancy role.
“I think I would say there is a lot more freedom,” articulates Aldcroft. “Freedom to play on the pitch, freedom to speak in meetings, freedom to enjoy each other’s company. It’s been really nice for us as a team to relax a bit and focus on the things we enjoy and want to go for. It is a really nice vibe and I think the girls are moving into it really well.
“I’m always an advocate for change. You never know how far you can get to or what your limits are if you don’t change an environment. That’s something we are really going for in this new era of the Red Roses – pushing our limits and seeing how far we can go to.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies