Abbie Ward Exclusive: “I don’t think you have seen the Red Roses in full flow yet”

Abbie Ward was part of the England squad which reached the World Cup final five years ago
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It is another training session under the belt for England’s Abbie Ward and she and a cluster of her teammates take a seat on the steps at Pennyhill Park.

There is a lot of laughter and camaraderie but also tired bodies as the Red Roses continue their preparations for the World Cup in New Zealand.

Whilst it was the end of the players’ ‘fast day’ on the field [where the team worked on their speed and translated that into their gameplay], it feels like the beginning of a huge couple of months for Simon Middleton’s side.

Yes, Ward and co have been in and out of camp since July 4th, but the rapidly approaching warm-up matches against the USA on Saturday and then Wales on September 14th means there is a charge in the air; one of anticipation and eagerness.

“It is not in us to settle at all,” Ward says when asked about the Red Roses’ recent rise to the top of the world rankings courtesy of a staggering 23-match unbeaten run.

“We are getting really close to business time now. We had a fairly good autumns, but the players definitely weren’t happy. We wanted to improve again and the same with the Six Nations.

“I don’t think you have seen us in full flow yet. I don’t think we’ve reached where we can and it’s about not settling, but it is about where we can get to and the heights of our performance. I think we are excited and we are probably ready to get out opposite an opposition.”

In the last three years, England have collected four consecutive Six Nations titles and whilst no one can question their unrivalled success in the northern hemisphere, their drive and commitment to compete at the very top is evident in Ward’s words.

“We’re about elevating each other, but pushing each other,” she says. “You only really get to see where you are by being pushed by the players next to you and opposite you.”

Since 2019, the Red Roses’ transformation has been remarkable. The introduction of professional contracts were met with a confidence, but a realism from Middleton who said they “will take time to embed but will unquestionably help us accelerate the development process.”

Rather than chuntering along at a steady pace, England have raced to the forefront of the sport and have become hard to ignore both on and off the pitch. Milestones are being continually ticked off by Ward and her teammates which is helping the growth of the team and in turn, the fervour around them.

“It’s pretty spectacular to be part of it,” says Ward, who has featured regularly for England since making her debut in 2015. “To see where we are going, the quality of the programme as a whole, and how that has improved is definitely exciting.

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“You are getting players now who have been picking up a ball and playing from such a young age that they are just such great natural ball-handlers and the way they can sense and feel a game is amazing. They have great pace and steps and that is not just the backs, that is the forwards as well!

“As a player who has been involved and maybe didn’t have that opportunity [to play at a young age], it pushes us. I think all the senior players are improving which is potentially quite a rare thing.

“Everything seems to be on that upward trajectory like the ticket sales in the last year. In all our games, they have been really good and it is a part of what we’re trying to achieve. The whole energy of the place, the support, the crowd is something which we never used to get.

“Our job is to put the performances out there. To play an exciting brand of rugby, a successful brand of rugby and in turn, that will help get more fans in there. If we focus on our job and we get that right, the rest will take care of itself.”

For Ward, having a wider impact is important to her and the squad: “I have got two nieces who want to be professional rugby players when they are older. They are 10 and 13 and it is brilliant. They are playing week in, week out. They are training. That’s amazing.

“I never had access to that. Not a lot of the girls did. They didn’t pick rugby up until they were at university. Yes, there are some girls that played from when they were six, but it is about the accessibility and also people being able to see it. You talk about ‘see it to be it’ and that exposure to see us on TV on the BBC [during the Six Nations], ITV [who will be showing the World Cup during October and November and will be showing England's game v USA this weekend], that is pretty amazing. To also get people to games, I think we are really showcasing the sport.

"I think there is a responsibility for us to produce good rugby on the pitch to help inspire, but if we are getting that bit right, then the rest will follow. It is definitely great to see and it is kind of scary when some of the girls coming through are like 17 years old. It is like they have been playing for 20 years already, but it is brilliant.”

The current blend of experience and youth in the squad constantly “lifts the energy in the group”, says Ward and that can only be a positive thing heading into such a pivotal period for the Red Roses. “It is a great mix for on the pitch,” she adds. “You’ve got players like Sarah Hunter who has been there and done everything there is in rugby, won finals, lost finals. She has got a huge amount of experience.

“You have then got players that are coming through that have never been involved in a World Cup like Sadia [Kabeya] and Maud [Muir] who are hungry and wanting to soak up everything but also challenge the older players in terms of their want and their desire to learn and to be better.”

Ward was part of the Red Roses side that lost the World Cup final in 2017, but now the task for England is to harness all the progress they have made since then and seize their opportunity with both hands.

Middleton’s side will be hoping to add to the success of England’s Lionesses who won the European Championships this summer - as well as the nation’s efforts at the Commonwealth Games - when they touch down in New Zealand and for Ward, contributing to the feel-good factor around women’s sport is something the Red Roses are very keen on.

“More than ever, the focus is on women’s sport which is brilliant,” Ward says. “We are starting to get the plaudits which I think the players deserve from the work that they put in.

“We have been put on those stages and we are allowing to showcase our abilities and our performances. To see the Lionesses, it was pretty amazing and if we can emulate that in a home World Cup in 2025, that would be spectacular but it starts with what we do this week and then from there, what we can do over in New Zealand.”