Chasing history, England bid for Women's Rugby World Cup glory in New Zealand

Sarah Hunter will lead England out at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, where the Red Roses will be favourites. Catherine Ivill - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

England manager Simon Middleton doesn't mess around when he talks about what is expected from the Red Roses at the 2021 Women's Rugby World Cup. "We've got to win it," Middleton said ahead of the tournament in New Zealand which starts on Oct. 8. "This is the best-prepared squad with the best strength in depth we've ever had. We are as ready to go as we could be."

That's the expectation you have behind you with a 25-match winning streak. England are red-hot favourites, but nothing is guaranteed in sport. "That doesn't mean we will win it," Middleton clarified. "The one thing you can't guarantee is that you'll win it because it doesn't work like that."

Middleton's Red Roses want to be on the right side of sporting destiny, as for every tale of a team heading into a World Cup -- in any sport -- as clear favourites and delivering, there is the other side of the coin where they fall short. "You look at Argentina beating New Zealand in New Zealand for the first time, you look at Andy Ruiz Jr. knocking Anthony Joshua out when he hasn't got a chance," Middleton added. "Everybody's got a chance in sport, that's the beauty of sport." It's the beauty, but it's also the pitfall awaiting England over the next few weeks.

After having lost the 2017 World Cup final to New Zealand 41-32, the RFU and the various stakeholders knew the current format and plan was not clicking. The Sevens team and the 15s had too much overlap -- lines were blurred, and players were burnt out as they juggled both formats. So, in September 2019, the RFU responded by signing 28 full-time pro player contracts -- the announcement coming just two months after their last defeat, as they fell to New Zealand in San Diego.

Since that defeat to the Black Ferns, they have built this incredible dominance spanning 25 matches. The record-clinching victory came just three weeks ago as they beat rivals Wales 73-7 to become the first international rugby side to win that many games on the bounce. Their performance on that Sept. 14 night at Ashton Gate was so dominant Middleton did something unexpected: He took off Helena Rowland as a precaution with 10 minutes left, also giving the team a chance to play with 14 players. England never took their foot off the pedal.

"That's something we kind of want to identify with," prop Sarah Bern tells ESPN. "We've talked about being ruthless. We want to make sure there are no holes in the performance, no cracks. We want to be perceived as being a really difficult team to face. We really work on that in training -- we train ridiculously hard, it's not an easy ride."

Bern, who has 46 caps, has been an integral part of the team which put together this 25-match winning run, but the starting motivation stems back from that defeat in 2017. She was there for the heartbreak of that World Cup final, and it still hurts. "Since then we've had some new players come through, and it's all about focusing on how can we make sure we have the strength, the depth in the team to ensure we take our next chance," Bern says. "We needed to reflect on what we didn't quite get right and how we could be in a better place the next time around." Bern has not yet brought herself to rewatch that final. the pain of that day is still too raw.

The chief mantra of the last five years has been minimising the unexpected. "We can't leave anything to chance," Bern says. The environment is different. Leading up to that last World Cup the players were training in a rigid 9 a.m.-5 p.m. schedule. The introduction of pro contracts has meant the whole programme is far more nuanced now. "It's high intensity, lots of rest and recovery and we don't train every single day," Bern says. "It's a high-performance job. We've also benefited from a really good player pathway and a lot of players coming through now have played divisional and county level so have played against each other and it's always been a really high level of competition."

The coaching team of Middleton -- who took charge in February 2015 -- Scott Bemand and Louis Deacon have fine-tuned the squad ahead of this World Cup. "Deacs always says to us in the pack, 'what kind of pack do you want to be?'" Bern says. "He says, 'do you want to be a dominating force, and something that's feared?' That's really been driven into us."

The depth of the squad has also shifted over the past five years. Take scrum-half -- England ended up going with Leanne Infante, Lucy Packer and Claudia MacDonald, leaving out the hugely experienced and admired Natasha 'Mo' Hunt who won the 2014 World Cup. And of the 32 on the plane, 19 will play in their first World Cup.

"We didn't realise how many players haven't participated in a previous World Cup," Bern says. "I think there's a good blend, it's great. The new players have all come through and stepped up and we've added so much strength and depth."

Long-term captain and No.8 mainstay Sarah Hunter's leadership has been integral in bringing the group from one World Cup to the next. "She's a brilliant captain, she does a lot of hard work behind the scenes," Bern says of Hunter, who is England's second-most capped player of all time. "She's always there doing the best she can and she's a great leader in terms of how she manages herself and manages people. I couldn't think of a better captain than her."

With Hunt absent, that left just six of the 2014 group who won that World Cup in this year's squad: Hunter, Laura Keates, Alex Matthews, Marlie Packer, Emily Scarratt and Lydia Thompson.

Scarratt, who won World Rugby Women's 15s Player of the Year in 2019, will be one of England's shining lights as their chief goalkicker but also one of their most experienced players. The centre featured for England in the 2010 World Cup, was instrumental in their charge to the 2014 title and was there for the heartbreak of 2017.

"The game has changed a lot. You can look at it from so many different angles," Scarratt says. "Fundamentally, how much time we are spending together in preparation is hugely different to 2010.

"Things like kit provision, how we travel, where we stay. The massive one we have now is the support network we have with the fans. It's been awesome to play a couple of warm-up games at home in front of 10,000 people. In the past we've had that for a World Cup final, not the warm-up fixture prior to it. It's really exciting.

"And it's scary how much the quality has gone up on the pitch. You get some of these youngsters running around -- they are super fast, super talented and super skilful. It's an awesome place to be."

Scarratt also highlighted the growth of the domestic game as a key factor in England's dominance. In June 2022, the RFU also unveiled a 10-year plan for Premier15s -- the domestic tournament in England -- where it hopes for the league to be fully professional by the start of the 2023-24 campaign with a 10-team league.

It's all anchored around the RFU's six-year plan to grow the number of female players to 100,000 by 2027, and aim to host a full-capacity England women's match at Twickenham over the next five years. Although, the women's programme is running at a loss, the RFU says -- in the plan it unveiled in 2021 -- that the organisation will be "generating meaningful profits from the women's game" by 2027 and profits which will be "re-invested into grassroots women and girls programmes."

But first, the World Cup.

The team arrived in New Zealand a full fortnight before their opener against Fiji on Oct. 8. After Fiji, next up will be Six Nations rivals France and South Africa before the quarterfinals across Oct. 29-30. If England do not end up lifting the trophy on Nov. 12 in Eden Park then it's likely New Zealand or France will be next best-placed to end the campaign as champions.

England have not mentioned the final -- it's part of the noise they try to compartmentalise between using the support and expectation as motivation while preventing it from becoming a distraction. The 25-match winning run is also rarely spoken about. "You know what, it's not ever a conversation which we players have," Bern says. "Sometimes the coaches drop it in. Yes it's an amazing achievement, and we're very proud of it to be world record holders but it's not something we really focus on. We look more to how we can make each performance better, and I know that sounds cliched, but it's how we can look at the game."

But England head into the competition as favourites, knowing full well this is a tournament they have had in their sights ever since the final whistle blew on their hopes five years ago. They are hoping, when the tournament hits its fever itch on Nov. 12, it will be 31 matches unbeaten.

"We're ready for the challenge," Bern says. "We're ready to knuckle down, put in the hard work and see what happens. We want to do well as a squad and do it together."