By Ben Hart, Sportsbeat
World Player of the Year Zoe Aldcroft reckons the Red Roses can replicate the success of England's Lionesses and cap a stunning year of women’s sport with a memorable World Cup triumph.
After the support seen across the country during England's historic Euro 2022 victory, the Scarborough-born second row is confident the nation's women's rugby stars will feel just as much love when they venture to New Zealand to contest the sport’s ultimate prize.
Before their opening fixture against Fiji on October 8, Aldcroft and co will have one last chance to impress on home soil with warm-up fixtures against USA and Wales.
Ashton Gate will open its doors to international rugby for the first time when Wales make the short trip along the M4 in September – and Aldcroft, 25, hopes that by spreading the rugby cheer to all corners of the country, Simon Middleton’s side will whet the appetite of Red Roses fans old and new prior to their journey Down Under.
“I think it's really great that they’re in two different spots,” said Aldcroft, speaking ahead of the Bristol clash where discounted tickets are available with O2 Priority - whose partnership with England's national teams sees them pledge to equally fund the men’s and women’s game.
“To get the crowd down at Exeter, which has been amazing in the past and then a new place where we've never been before in Bristol, we’re hoping we can expand our support network leading up to New Zealand and hopefully they’ll be excited by those games and then support us.
“I think as a nation, we're very good at getting behind our sports teams and really encouraging our players. The better they do, the more support they get. The support behind the Lionesses was absolutely amazing and hopefully we can get that support for the Red Roses out in New Zealand.”
Two experienced campaigners bound to play a key role in England’s bid for a third World Cup triumph are Sarah Hunter and Emily Scarratt, Aldcroft’s heroes-turned-teammates, a pair she idolised in her teenage years.
Now it’s the Gloucester-Hartpury star who is asked to pose for pictures with fans at matches, and though Aldcroft finds that hard to believe, she hopes the buzz around the England rugby side will only continue to grow.
“Every time a little girl comes up I think, why do you want a photo with me? I’m just a normal person,” joked Aldcroft, who was speaking alongside Red Roses teammates Sarah Hunter and Lydia Thompson ahead of the clash in Bristol on September 14.
“A few people have said we’re trailblazers at the moment because we are at this stage where it's just growing so rapidly.
“In the next like five to 10 years, I think it's going to be absolutely massive. I think if we just keep performing well on the pitch, then people will be more interested in watching and we can actually prove that the standard of our game is of a high quality and that we have our own style.
“And the amount of young girls that we see in the crowd too, it's amazing to think that they're aspiring to be like us one day. Hopefully they're going away to their rugby clubs saying, ‘I want to be like that player.’
“And they can see it, which is something that I didn't have when I was growing up.
“It's just amazing to be a part of this transformation.”
Winger Lydia Thompson, 30, sees the warm-up fixtures as the perfect opportunity to prepare for New Zealand and added: “We obviously know USA are going to be physical.
“They've got a great, athletic team and with Wales, a lot of the girls are playing in the Premier 15s, so we know that they've got a lot of talented players and have grown so much as a team with the full-time contracts.
“These are the kind of games where you find out where you’re at, and I think it will give us a really good gauge of where we are going into the New Zealand, going onto that plane.”
Hunter, 36, said: “Playing for England, it's a real passion, it's a real honour.
“I’m still so motivated to want to improve and to be a better player.
“Playing for England was my dream and there is no tougher opposition than New Zealand.
“Obviously in 2017, they won that game and rightly so, they were the better team. So obviously we’d like to go and right a few wrongs.”
England Rugby’s women’s team, the Red Roses, will be playing their final warm-up game against Wales at Ashton Gate, Bristol, on 14th September 2022 before travelling to New Zealand. Be part of the action and bag discounted Category 1 tickets with O2 Priority. For more information on O2’s partnership, visit https://www.englandrugby.com/about-rfu/rfu-partners/o2.