LJ Lewis Exclusive: Red Roses success gives us lots of good things to signpost our players to

LJ Lewis has spoken about the importance of university rugby in shaping the future of the Red Roses
©RFU collection

The last few years have been littered with success for England, and their recent triumph in the inaugural WXV tournament highlights why the Red Roses continue to be one of the leading nations on the world stage.

The future looks bright and TRU spoke with England U20 women’s head coach LJ Lewis about unearthing the next generation of stars, the impact of a home World Cup in 2025 and the quality that lies within university rugby.

After four years in the coaching team at Wasps Women, alongside two years in the assistant coach role for the England Women U20s, Lewis was recently promoted to head coach of the age-grade national side.

At the beginning of November, she and the rest of her team assessed the future stars of English rugby across four different training camps in the North, Midlands, East and West of the country.

"There’s always players getting unearthed around the country, and I think it's whether those players are ready at the moment right now,” said Lewis on the importance of the training camps.

"I think it's really good for them to be with their peers, for the player to see and feel that experience, whilst we also engage with the clubs and encourage them that, you know, we still want to find more players.

"It’s been really helpful to do these two things side by side. First of all, see the players that we know about and also have a touchpoint of the players we don’t know about."

The growth of women’s rugby goes hand in hand with the success of the Red Roses, with over 40,000 women now playing the sport in England alone. Lewis believes the accessibility some of these girls have to the Red Roses, with the introduction of transition contracts, is a huge benefit for the game and creates a lot of excitement within the U20s camp.

"A winning England always helps drive excitement and encourages players to be the best of themselves but I also think we’ve added a new layer with these transition contracts now too”, says Lewis.

"Obviously this year there’s only five, but depending on what those contracts look like going forward, there's a huge realism for the players in our space that they could actually be on these kinds of contracts and be in and out of the Red Roses space.

"The Red Roses have had a really successful year and I think it's been good for our players to see that team now evolving [under new head coach John Mitchell].

"This will also help drive engagement with the girls that we get, and it helps our case when we’re in camp and gives us lots of good things to kind of signpost them to."

After just falling short in the last two World Cups against New Zealand, the Red Roses will be looking to get the trophy back in their hands in 2025 and what better place to do it than on home soil. For those in the pathway programme, Lewis believes the next World Cup will only further inspire them both now and in the future.

"A few of the girls in our space could end up being in that 2025 World Cup but I also think, because it's on home soil, a lot of girls in the pathway, whether it's U18s or U20s, it gives them something to be able to have access to - to be able to go to games, to be able to see these players.

"And as an 18-year-old you might be saying; 'Okay, I'm not a Red Rose yet, but I'm on that pathway and oh my gosh it’s on my doorstep and I can go and see it' so again I think that’s definitely a really good tool for us in the pathway to be using.

"And then you know off the back of a win in England at a World Cup, how do we keep creating that success from a pathway point of view? I think one of our jobs, pathway-wise, is to have discussions about the next two World Cups. Use the 2025 World Cup to get them excited, open their eyes and let them actually see and feel a World Cup but you could be playing in the next one and I think that’s kind of how we will try and use it in our space."

The 2025 home World Cup undoubtedly creates a lot of anticipation for girls around the country, but arguably there is no better source of excitement in the women’s game at the moment than university rugby.

With the new Premiership Women's Rugby season kicking off this weekend, the BUCS Women’s National League has been massively entertaining over the last couple of years and is continuing to put on a show in 2023/24.

Having been to see a few of the teams this year, Lewis is very aware of the quality that lies within the league and how important student rugby is for the future of the game, with many of the players involved in her recent training camps connected to universities.

"I used to work in a club environment and Gloucester-Hartpury was one of them, so I'd seen a lot of BUCS rugby before and since that time, the quality of the game has grown again. I think it’s a really important pathway for us or a really important competition outlet for us.

"Premiership rugby is great and it definitely has a massive benefit, but not all of the girls in our pathway at this moment in time are ready for that so something like BUCS is another really good outlet.

"We can’t just have them sitting in a Premiership club, but if there’s a really good university that they’re going to and there’s a good rugby programme then that’s perfect. They just need to be getting rugby exposure, they can’t be getting to 20 and hardly playing any rugby so it’s really key and I’m really impressed with it. I actively go and watch it and will continue to."

Lots of universities in the Women's National League such as Exeter, Loughborough and Hartpury have very direct links with Premiership clubs and the pathway between the two means a lot of girls at these institutions are getting plenty of top-level game time already.

As has been seen time and time again in rugby and many other sports, there is always talent to be found below the top level, and in the case of women’s university rugby, the England U20 head coach is keen to give these girls similar opportunities.

"I have engaged with universities, particularly in the North East where we don’t have a Prem club. We’ve just run our North day (U-20 camp) and I engaged with the three universities up there - Durham University, Northumbria University and Newcastle University.

"Would I ever look at a player that wasn’t in the top league? Yes, of course I would. If players were being identified (from lower leagues) then of course I believe that’s part of the programme in unearthing future Red Roses."

Winning six of the last seven Six Nations Championships and appearing in the final of the last World Cup highlights the incredible place English rugby is in.

The four U20s camps last week are the first step in Lewis and her team’s mission to make sure the future of the Red Roses is capable of similar, if not better, achievements.

Women’s National League: Round-Up

Exeter University are one of the top institutions that Lewis will certainly be keeping tabs on and Poppy Leitch's side made the long trip up to the Scottish capital in Round 6 of the Women's National League.

And it was well worth it as they beat Edinburgh University 41-29 and took five points back to Devon a couple of weeks ago.

Last season's finalists weren't in action this week but champions Hartpury were, and they followed up their recent 44-12 victory over Cardiff Met with an emphatic performance against Edinburgh as they made it four wins on the trot with a 69-7 triumph.

Cardiff University’s form is quite the contrast, as they were condemned to their sixth loss of the season with Loughborough beating the beating the newcomers 32-21 in Round 8.

The African Violet have now won their last three after also defeating Edinburgh 31-24 last week.

Elsewhere this week, Cardiff Met University were back to business as usual as they dispatched Durham University 67-7, scoring 11 tries in the process.

BUCS Super Rugby: Round-Up

League champions Loughborough University got back to winning ways as they left the West Country with five points after putting in a scintillating attacking display to beat Hartpury University 39-25.

Bath University continued their impressive form as they produced the first whitewash of the season after beating a struggling Nottingham University side 43-0.

Having looked like the side to beat all year, Exeter University were in no mood to let their winning run end in Round 7 against Cardiff Met University. After being 10-7 down at the break, the league leaders scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to win 28-10 - their third victory in Wales already this season.

Leeds Beckett University have put in some impressive performances all term, but head coach Kerry Wood will be most pleased with his side this week. Swansea University were no match for the northern institution, with the game ending in a 47-21 defeat for the Welsh side.

Cardiff University shipped 50 points for the third time this season, as a brace from blindside flanker Arthur Green, guided Durham University to a 50-21 win.