With investment comes expectation for England. As the first full-time XVs squad in women’s rugby, a move their captain, Sarah Hunter, has called revolutionary, there is an obvious backdrop against which this year’s championship takes place.
As their head coach, Simon Middleton, said: “We’ve got it now, we’ve got to use it.” But he believes it will take up to two years to truly feel the benefits of turning professional. That may be so but questions will be asked if England do not reclaim the title, ceded to France a year ago as a result of a one-point defeat in Grenoble.
“We’re two weeks into it and we train Monday to Wednesday so we’ve only had six days,” says Hunter, whose side begin their campaign against Ireland in Dublin on Friday. “The professionalism hasn’t actually kicked in fully yet. People are almost expecting a brand new England team to come to the Six Nations, but realistically it will take time for us to learn how to be professional and to learn how to get that on to the pitch.”
Claiming an England scalp is always a motivation for their rivals and all the more so considering the 28 full-time contracts handed out by the Rugby Football Union, worth up to £28,000 a year. “Everyone talks about how there might be more pressure. Yes, there might be a bit more expectation but we always as a team have the most professional standards we could have while working full-time,” says Hunter.
“We always set ourselves a really high standard and I don’t think being professional will change that. And I don’t think us being professional will change people’s mindset of how they prepare to play us. Everyone wants to beat an England side, whether that’s in rugby, football, cricket, netball, everyone likes to beat the English.”
Middleton highlights quicker recovery time from injuries as the biggest change so far but points to the 80 days when he will have access to his squad between now and July as the most significant effect of professionalism.
“The quality of what we do when the girls come back in is higher because the recovery time is quick,” he says. “Once we get through the Six Nations with a really good idea of where we’re at, that’s when we can push on and the full-time [contracts] will make a difference.”
The French response, however, is pointed. They are the defending grand slam champions and after a drawn series with the world champions, New Zealand, in the autumn, including a thrilling 30-27 over the Black Ferns, they will take some stopping. They have around 24 players on part-time contracts and the coach, Annick Heyraud, does not believe England’s preferred route is the best.
“I’m not sure exactly it will mean that England have any advantage over France,” she says. “We have a contract which covers 50% of time and that makes it easier for our players to train and in particular it allows them better time to prepare.
“Our view is that a 100% contract is not necessarily ideal because what we want is to strike a balance. For our players to have a balance between their rugby but also their studies or jobs so they can flourish within their lives as a whole.”
WOMEN’S SIX NATIONS FIXTURES 2019
Week 1: Friday Ireland v England (5pm, Donnybrook); Scotland v Italy (7.35pm, Scotstoun Stadium); Saturday France v Wales (9pm, Stadium GGL). Week 2: 8 Feb Scotland v Ireland (7.35pm, Scotstoun Stadium); 9 Feb Italy v Wales (8pm, Lecce); 10 Feb England v France (12.45pm, Castle Park). Week 3: 23 Feb Italy v Ireland (7.30pm, Stadio Lafranchi); France v Scotland (9pm, Stadium Metropole); 24 Feb Wales v England (12.30pm, Cardiff Arms Park). Week 4: 8 Mar Scotland v Wales (7.35pm, Scotstoun Stadium); 9 Mar England v Italy (12.05pm, Sandy Park); Ireland v France (7pm, Donnybrook). Week 5: 16 Mar England v Scotland (7.30, Twickenham); 17 Mar Wales v Ireland (1.30pm, Cardiff Arms Park); Italy v France (2.30pm, Stadio Plebiscito).