An invite to Pennyhill, a chat with Simon Middleton and how excited we should all be for the Red Roses

Simon Middleton presenting TRU's Elizabeth Cartwright with a signed England shirt for charity

Last Tuesday, Simon Middleton invited me to Pennyhill Park to watch the Red Roses train and to interview some of the girls ahead of the Rugby World Cup in October.

He also very kindly gave me a signed England shirt to auction off for charity after I lost a very close friend of mine to Bowel Cancer last year. On 29th August, I ran 10K in my friend’s memory.

Simon and I have had many conversations over Zoom so it was refreshing chatting to one another face to face!

Since I started coaching at my local rugby club - St.Ives Midlands RFC - the England boss, despite pouring all of his energy and efforts into getting the Red Roses ready for New Zealand, has been incredibly supportive of my ambitions. I was touched when he invited me to watch the girls so I could see first-hand what happens in training and try and take some learnings from it.

Once England had finished their intense session, Simon came over and greeted me with a hug and a smile. It was a special moment for me because it was the first time interviewing someone in person for TRU and not through a screen!

Off air, Simon asked me how the training was going ahead of my run. To then present me with the shirt, I felt somewhat emotional receiving it. He went on to ask me about how my newly formed girls rugby team were getting on ahead of their festival on Saturday before attention switched to the Red Roses and their quest to become world champions.

Despite the competitiveness of the training session - with warm-up games against the USA and Wales now on the horizon - Simon, unsurprisingly, began our chat in a light-hearted manner.

England are planning on staying on one of the islands in New Zealand during the World Cup where it is very difficult to access Wi-Fi: “I’m not bothered as I don’t do social media!” Simon tells TRU. “The girls won’t know what to do with themselves!”

The atmosphere at Pennyhill is one of focus, but also excitement. Players and staff are hard at work, but they all have smiles on their faces ahead of a massive few weeks for the world's top-ranked Test nation.

Bringing it back to ‘on the pitch’ matters, Simon describes the session as a “fast day." “It involves a lot of speed work and we then tried to translate that into gameplay, short sharp and punchy play.

“Preparations are going really well. We’ve got 39 players in camp, including a couple of players who are rehabbing. Generally, the people that are here are in pretty good shape. We’re a little bit fatigued because we’ve had eight weeks with only one week’s break, but we’re excited for our warm-up games coming up.

“We’re playing the USA in Exeter first (this Saturday at 3.00pm) which will be great. We’ve had some fantastic matches in Exeter. It’s always been a great place to play, it’s one of the places that really embraced us when the game really took off three or four years ago.

“They were quite instrumental in driving the crowd when we needed that. Then we’re going to Ashton Gate to play Wales which will be fantastic. It’ll be our first time playing at Ashton Gate and Wales are right on the border so we’re expecting a big crowd. Hopefully it’ll be a great send off for us, USA and for Wales and to give everybody a real taste of what is to come.”

The growing buzz around the Red Roses is bubbling away nicely before they jet off to New Zealand in a couple of weeks' time. Last month, England held an open training session at Twickenham in front of hundreds of fans as the feel-good factor around the squad continued.

Saracens’ Hannah Botterman described the day as “really cool.” “We don’t always get to see the fans really unless it’s a game day. It was really nice to see everyone there and hopefully they enjoyed it too. We all got given a sharpie and it was great being able to give something back to the fans and sign what we could.”

England’s warm-up game against the USA will be shown on terrestrial TV (ITV4), something which is becoming more and more frequent after the Red Roses’ latest Six Nations triumph was broadcast across the BBC.

However, the boost in the popularity of women’s rugby also has some unusual perks: “Someone was in the crowd and said if I signed his leg, he’d get it tattooed!” Botterman tells TRU. “I don’t know if he got it tattooed, though he seemed pretty certain he’d get it done! It was one of my worst signings I’ve ever done! It was on the side of his leg and I was on the floor trying to sign it. It was bad, not good at all”.

Whilst signing a part of someone’s body wasn’t on her agenda at Twickenham, World Player of the Year Zoe Aldcroft echoed Botterman’s thoughts regarding the training session and how the increased publicity presented her with the opportunity to appear on A Question of Sport.

“The training session was really fun,” she adds. “It was so good to have so many supporters there, there were so many young fans in the crowd too. We got to see them after and interact with lots of them which was really nice. It was absolutely roasting hot, though, which was hard to train in!

“Question of Sport was really fun but I was absolutely rubbish! My main question was about canoeing which I had no idea about but it was a great laugh!”

The upwards trajectory which the Red Roses are on – both on and off the field – is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Having experienced a day I will never forget at Pennyhill Park, let’s hope England can create more memories that we can all collectively cherish over the next two months.