By Paul Eddison, Sportsbeat
The Red Roses head into the Women’s World Cup in an unprecedented position as overwhelming favourites but 2014 champion Maggie Alphonsi has backed them to cope with the pressure.
Back-row star Alphonsi was part of the England team that lifted the trophy seven years ago, the second time they had claimed the global crown.
Now, coach Simon Middleton’s side are looking to win a third world title and have arrived in New Zealand on the back of 25 consecutive victories, the longest winning streak in the history of international men’s or women’s rugby.
As a result, England are heavy favourites, even in the back yard of the defending champions who have won five titles in seven participations. That status brings a new level of pressure.
For Alphonsi though, the Red Roses have shown enough over the course of the past five years since a defeat in the final to those very same Black Ferns, that they should feel confident that they can get the job done.
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“If I think about my experience, going back to 2006 then 2010, there was always a feeling going into the tournament that New Zealand were the favourites and then you would expect England would reach the final, but could they actually go and win it?,” said Alphonsi, who was meeting with women and girls who play for National Lottery-supported Haringey Rhinos RFC, to see for herself how National Lottery funding is having a positive impact on female participation at the club.
“Even in 2017, I’d say New Zealand still felt like they were the favourites, so this is probably the first time where England have been seen as the overwhelming favourites and it’s theirs to lose. It puts a lot of pressure on their shoulders, especially away in New Zealand in front of those crowds, potentially playing New Zealand in the final.
“They beat them twice last year in the autumn, convincingly, but Simon Middleton won’t let the team rest on their laurels because of those wins.
“England have been playing so well, they were challenged a little bit in the warm-up games but looked good and if there were any chinks in the armour, they will have ironed those out. What is impressive about this England team is that it feels like they have thrived when playing under pressure. They won the Six Nations and just seem to be getting better and better.”
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It is testament to England’s depth that three players who were part of the victorious squad alongside Alphonsi in 2014 missed the cut this time around, most notably, scrum-half Natasha Hunt.
She added: “When the squad came out, Natasha Hunt was one of those people you would have expected to be in there, she brings such a high level of experience, she was part of the team I was in back in 2014, she’s been to Olympics, various World Cups in Sevens and 15s. It’s exactly the wealth of experience you would want in your team. But I’m not in the mind of Simon Middleton. He’s made the decision that he wants to bring in other players and a different angle to it. I feel absolutely gutted for Natasha Hunt and various others.”