England’s recent history in the Women’s Rugby World Cup had been a tale of ‘so close yet so far’.
After winning the 1994 edition, England suffered 20 years of hurt with three consecutive final defeats [in 2002, 2006 and 2010], all coming at the hands of New Zealand.
That 2010 defeat was particularly crushing as it came on home soil, with the Black Ferns coming out 13-10 winners in the final at Twickenham Stoop.
But 2014 was different. England went one step further to win the World Cup — and former Red Roses flanker Maggie Alphonsi tells ESPN how they did it.
England huddle during a training session during the World Cup. Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images
The Six Nations, as ever, heralded the start of the international year and England were bidding to reclaim the championship after Ireland broke their run of seven consecutive titles in 2013.
However, a lacklustre opening performance away to eventual Grand Slam winners France was not the start they were looking for. England went down 18-6 to the French having failed to score in the second half as their opponents ran away with the game.
The result meant England needed a French slip-up to win the title. France didn’t falter and the Red Roses had to settle for second.
There were positives for England though. They went on to win their other four games and on an individual level, Emily Scarratt was the tournament’s top points scorer — a feat she went on to repeat in the World Cup.
There was also the return of Danielle Waterman from injury. The fullback had spent 14 months on the sidelines before returning against Italy. She marked her return with a try as England eased to a 24-0 win.
The campaign may not have ended in glory, but the foundations for the World Cup were laid throughout the tournament.
“Our training programme was very hard,” Alphonsi said. “We wanted to be the fittest, strongest and fastest team at that World Cup and our management did everything in their powers to make that a reality.”
Alphonsi is very complimentary of the work that coach Gary Street and assistants Graham Smith and Simon Middleton did to get the team prepared.
“They were brilliant,” said Alphonsi. “They covered every detail. They empowered the players to take a lead and they challenged us all to get better each day.”
During the course of the year, the team spent more time together than they had done in the run-up to previous tournaments. The team even took part in team building exercises on a Navy base to improve their leadership skills.
The pool stages
Katherine Merchant touches down for England’s first try of the tournament. Harry Engels/Getty Images
England started off the tournament with two comfortable wins, seeing off Samoa 65-3 in their opener before a 45-5 victory over Spain.
“Against Samoa and Spain we were excellent,” said Alphonsi. “We had done our preparation and we were very confident in our ability, but we hadn’t really been properly tested.”
England would be brought back down to earth with a bump, however, as a tame 13-13 draw against Canada after a late penalty from Magali Harvey checked their progress.
“The game against Canada really did give us a shock,” Alphonsi continued. “They came out ready to play and we weren’t fully ready for it. They challenged us in all areas of the field but thankfully our defence held strong to keep the score to a draw.”
The result still meant that England topped the group, and it also took Canada through to the knockouts as the best runner-up from the pool stage.
Ireland thrashed in the semis
Kay Wilson hands-off Ireland’s Ashleigh Baxter during the semifinal. Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images
New Zealand had not been beaten in the Rugby World Cup since 1991, when the Black Ferns were stunned by the United States in the semifinals. However Ireland shocked them, running out 17-14 winners in the pool stage to send the favourites crashing out.
It was the biggest shock in the tournament’s history, and England were next in their sights. But the English were just as motivated, out to make amends after their poor showing against Canada.
“Following the Canada game we were so disappointed with our performance,” Alphonsi said. “We wanted to use this game to turn things around.
“Going in to the game our attitude and preparation was just right. We knew what Ireland were capable of following their win over New Zealand so we did not take them lightly.”
In Paris, England were ruthless, running in five tries as they thrashed the Irish 40-7 to send them into their fourth consecutive Rugby World Cup final.
“It just clicked,” Alphonsi added on the performance. “We functioned well as a team. Nothing could go wrong and we all felt in the zone.
“We played our best rugby that day and it gave us the momentum we needed to go into the final.”
England line up ahead of the final at a packed Stade Jean-Bouin – over 20,000 fans were in attendance. Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images
After the hurt of the previous three finals, England headed into their fourth consecutive Rugby World Cup showpiece convinced that this was their time to triumph.
“On the coach journey to the ground and in the changing room I remember listening to my music. My album of choice at that time was Linkin Park and every song that played got me more and more psyched up,” Alphonsi remembered.
“We were all buzzing following our performance against Ireland.
“We knew on our day we could beat Canada. We felt the tournament was ours to win.”
The final itself was a tense affair with plenty of unforced errors. England were on top in the early stages, dominating possession. However, Canada put up a strong defensive fight. England went into half time 11-0 up, thanks to a Danielle Waterman try and a pair of penalties from Emily Scarratt — but the scoreline could have been a lot more comfortable.
And England would be made to rue their mistakes as Canada started to reel them in after the break. The boot of Magali Harvey brought the Canadians back to within two points with over 20 minutes to go.
England were in danger of sacrificing their lead. Scarratt put over a penalty of her own to calm the nerves of her team before she went over with a try with five minutes left on the clock to all-but seal victory.
England captain Katy McLean lifts the Women’s Rugby World Cup trophy. Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
Referee Amy Perrett’s final whistle sparked scenes of jubilation on the pitch as England’s bench flooded onto the pitch to celebrate. Many of them had been involved in the final defeat of 2010, and some even experienced the 2006 heartbreak.
For all of England’s players, winning the World Cup was fulfilment of a lifetime ambition, particularly for Alphonsi: “To become a world champion was all I had ever wanted and it is all I had been talking about for 11 years.
“To finally do it was a dream come true.”
Alphonsi decided to end her career in rugby after the World Cup: “We had finally achieved the thing that I had set out to accomplish and I was truly happy.”
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How England won the 2014 WRWC
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