Rachael Burford Interview: Aussie motivation, England's style of play and dealing with pressure

Burford was part of England's World Cup campaigns in 2014 and 2017
©Girls Rugby Club / Macesport

It had all the hallmarks of being another dominant outing for England's Red Roses last Sunday and in the end, it proved to be the case.

Their final Pool C match of the World Cup against South Africa came after a stern test from old foes France. Simon Middleton's side have become accustomed to blowing teams away and most opponents who face England do so with trepidation.

However, their 13-7 win over Les Bleues suggested it won't all be straightforward for the No.1 ranked side in the world on their quest for glory and despite returning to their ruthless and clinical best to thump the Springboks 75-0, former World Cup winner Rachael Burford is wary of any complacency seeping in.

"England are the red-hot favourites to win this tournament, but I think so many people have just made it a foregone conclusion," she tells TRU. "Hopefully that result [v France] and a few others that have happened across the tournament means England have got to work for it. It is not just going to be given to them and that is a positive for the tournament."

So how do you stop a side in the richest of form? England's win against South Africa extended their unbeaten run to 28 matches and next to try and halt the Red Roses are Australia, who they meet in the quarter-finals on Sunday in Auckland.

The last time the two nations clashed was back in 2017, with England claiming a 53-10 victory in the International Women's Series in New Zealand, so judging by that scoreline and the development of the Red Roses since then, things may already be looking ominous for the Wallaroos.

Australia are currently ranked seventh in the world and were patchy throughout the pool stages. In their opening fixture against hosts New Zealand, an energetic first 40 certainly caught the eye before the Black Ferns regathered themselves and took the game away from their neighbours.

The Wallaroos were 12-0 down against Scotland in their second match of Pool A before Bienne Terita and Ashley Marster turned the contest around, and they were also pushed extremely hard in their final group stage encounter by Wales before claiming a 13-7 triumph.

The plus points for Australia to take into their last eight tie will be their first-half performance against New Zealand and the character they displayed to qualify for the knockout stages.

Burford believes the challenge of facing England will also be something Jay Tregonning's side will be keen to harness and the fact the two teams haven't faced each other for five years also adds an element of intrigue.

"If Australia can deliver the 30 minutes they did at Eden Park and put that into 80 minutes, I think they can really push England," said Burford, speaking on behalf of Harlequins' new partnership with investment platform Saxo. "A lot of those players will never have played them. It is that unknown, you don't know what to expect, you are not knowing how normal results against these teams go so you don't kind of have that experience and that belief system in place because only a handful of those players would have played Australia back in 2017.

"Australia's progression over the last five years, they have got the new Super W so they have had a high-end competition albeit quite a small one. They have played in the Pacific Four Series this year [v New Zealand, Canada and USA]. They have had a run of games at a certain level which they wouldn't have had in 2017 so that amount of tests, the learnings, that is going to put them in good stead for this weekend.

"Australia will want to be the one that ends the 28-game streak. What better opportunity to be the team that could end that run and knock England out of the World Cup. They don't need any extra motivation."

Burford puts Australia's disjointed showings down to the lack of time they spend together as a squad whereas when you compare that with England, it is night and day.

Thirteen of Middleton's side made their World Cup debuts in the success against South Africa with Burford's club teammate, Rosie Galligan, one of the standout performers. The strength in depth and the cohesion of the Red Roses is clear for all to see.

This was evident on Sunday as England's well-oiled line-out maul led to seven of their 13 tries. Middleton hit back at claims that his side are 'one-dimensional' and suggested there is plenty more to come from the Red Roses as they enter the business end of the tournament.

Burford agrees with her old international coach when it comes to England's style of play: "There have been enough teams here [at the World Cup] that at times will have been able to stop that driving maul so they have got to have another way of attacking.

"They have got that in their armoury. We saw that against Fiji as well. We saw the way they opened up in the second half and games are all about getting ahead, getting the momentum and then you can then pull that trigger to play. If that is what settles that team to unlock what they then can go on to do, then I am more than happy for them to maul it for 25 minutes and play after."

The Red Roses will of course be looking to cause Australia trouble all over the park on Sunday as they prepare to enter the knockout stages of a World Cup once again. 

Burford was part of the 2014 side which went all the way in France and she also played in the final in 2017 when England lost out to New Zealand so understands the emotions every Red Roses player will be experiencing. 

The reality is that everyone expects England to reach a sixth World Cup final in a row - with the main objective to take back their crown from the Black Ferns - and if Middleton's charges are to achieve that feat, Burford believes the balance in camp has to be spot on.

"Naturally with a lot of players, they may have not been at a Rugby World Cup before, not being at the knockout stage," she says. "I think you have got to keep things relatively normal or the same because I think if you start trying to change things around because there is the threat of going home, if you start talking like that then that can obviously affect the players that have not gone through that.

"I think naturally the players will look out for one another. It is quite an open squad. Nerves are celebrated. If you are not nervous, then you probably don't care enough.

"The likes of Scaz [Emily Scarratt] Sarah [Hunter] (who is set to earn her 138th cap to become England’s most-capped player) Abbie Ward, they have been here before. They know what to expect but some of those players don't. You have got to find the right balance that doesn't add pressure that people aren't prepared to cope with.

"Everyone is different. Some people like to still consume themselves. They will watch all the set-pieces to death or watch their other games against the opposition. Some players will really step away or they will make sure that the day off they have this week is nothing to do with rugby.

"Making sure there are some team socials and some dedicated switch-off time, we call it enforced fun! It becomes fun in the end but it is kind of enforced initially! That will also be important to ensuring the squad morale stays high. 

"I know it is boring but everyone will probably just stick to the same processes they have. They will tweak certain elements around the opposition they are playing, but very much it does become business as usual."

And if it is 'business as usual' on Sunday for the seemingly unstoppable Red Roses, England should find themselves one game away from another World Cup final.