Despite being denied an opportunity to clinch back-to-back Grand Slam titles, England Women have provided a glimpse into what could be possible in the future after packing out rugby venues up and down the country.
From Sandy Park to Castle Park and Twickenham Stoop to the Ricoh Arena, the Red Roses have taken the Women’s Six Nations on the road to several venues, and thousands have come in their droves to catch them in action.
In England’s last game, in which they beat Wales 66-7 to earn a 15th Triple Crown title, a record crowd of 10,974 witnessed Poppy Cleall’s hat-trick at the Stoop.
England head coach Simon Middleton, who has seen the side transition from just under 3,000 spectators at the Harlequins ground since he took over in 2015, is full of pride in what his team have achieved.
“It makes you immensely proud doesn’t it,” said Middleton, who also oversees the England Women’s Sevens side.
“It was a great atmosphere and to have nearly 11,000 here was fantastic and to put on a good performance which I think we did do.
“You could see how much they love their Quins players here and how much they love Hannah Botterman and Sarah Bern – when they came off the bench.
“It’s great that you can get the crowd off their feet like that and we've got some good personalities in the side.”
Middleton’s thoughts were reiterated by 2019 World Player of the Year Emily Scarratt, who captained the side’s success against Wales.
"It's awesome playing here in front of this many people,” reflected Scarratt after the full-time whistle. “We love playing in front of crowds like this.
"It's the last game of the Six Nations for us at the moment, so we wanted to put on a show.”
A huge thanks to the 10,974 fans that came to the Stoop today 🌹— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 7, 2020
A record number of tickets sold for a Red Roses home game outside of the World Cup! pic.twitter.com/Mef9sZhYPx
The Red Roses are the only professional women’s side currently competing in the Six Nations, with the RFU handing out 28 full-time contracts last year, which Middleton called a “revolutionary step” at the time. England’s captain Sarah Hunter added that it was a “huge move” for the women’s game.
A year on, the England coach now hopes to see development in the wider areas of the game with other nations transitioning into the professional game, something he believes is the next logical step.
He said: “The logical thing to say is to get all the home nations playing full-time but whether that’s practical or not, I don’t know.
“I think they’re doing as well as they feel they can at this moment in time. The biggest difference was evident against Wales because nobody played with any more passion than anybody else and it was the same last week with Ireland and the week before with Scotland, but it’s the physical difference and we just overpowered Wales in the end.
“That’s a product of being in a full-time environment, training every single day and recovering. It’s tough but it’s one of those challenges that the home nations face.”
With numerous Six Nations games postponed in the men’s, women’s and under-20s tournaments, England will have to wait for a chance to seal a second successive Grand Slam crown.
And while Middleton admits he would relish an opportunity to play their final match against Italy as soon as possible, the 54-year-old says they will be ready for a rearranged date.
“I think because we know it’s going to be a while before it gets settled, it’s one of those where we went through and sat down with the players and staff as we pulled the plan together for next week," he added.
“I think more than anything for the players they wanted to know what next week looks like. We’ve got that plan in place for now and it will be a case of as soon as we know we’ll let them know about that final fixture and get them to prepare as much as we can.
“It's probably been quite hard for a few staff as well, it’s the first tournament for a few staff and everybody works so hard in this competition. It’s quite attritional and particularly for the likes of your medical staff and what not.
“We’ve got quite a new and young medical staff in place and they've worked tirelessly over the last five or six weeks. It would have been nice to finish it off soon but it’s not going to be, so we’ll park it.
“The players want to keep going and want to finish the Six Nations off and I suppose all I can do is say you’ve got to keep playing well now and maybe you’ll be in the game when we go to Italy.”