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In the build up to England’s match against Scotland in the 2019 football World Cup, striker Toni Duggan called on fans and journalists to criticise her team when they underperformed.

At the time, the current Everton forward was playing for Barcelona in Spain where scathing rebukes were evenly distributed between men and women.

“[In Spain] when we lose we’re slated, the same as the men,” she said. “That’s the level the game is at. In the past, we might have lost a game [with England] and you get fans messaging you saying, ‘Ah, don’t worry, you’ve done well.’”

England Women’s coach John Mitchell on the Red Roses squad

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England Women’s coach John Mitchell on the Red Roses squad

According to Duggan, harsh treatment – in the right context – was a marker of esteem, which is why recent comments by Ugo Monye about England’s Red Roses side must either be viewed as blinkered bias, or as a sign of disrespect.

A caveat first. Monye is a gem and does more to promote women’s rugby than most people, man or woman. Which is why his comments should not be interpreted with any malice. But, to give Monye the respect that he personally deserves as an important voice in the game, he needs calling out. In doing so perhaps we might shift the discourse around the Red Roses.

Speaking in the wake of England’s 48-0 drubbing of Italy in Parma, Monye declared them to be the best sports team “in any gender on the planet”. With a scoreline like the one procured on Italy’s own patch and a run of five consecutive Six Nations titles along with four grand slams, it’s difficult to make a counterargument. That is until you cast your gaze up towards the sport’s most glittering prize.

In each of the last two World Cup finals – in New Zealand in 2022 and Ireland in 2017 – England’s Roses wilted at the last challenge and went home with silver medals. On both occasions, their conquerors were the New Zealand Black Ferns who were able to stand up to England’s power game while stacking up enough points through their fizzing interplay.

Does that sound like the best team in the world? Can you imagine if there was a men’s team that dominated their continental competition only to succumb at the peak of the mountain? You don’t have to. Until Richie McCaw spearheaded a dynasty the All Blacks were roundly mocked for their inability to add to their solitary World Cup win. Now the derision is directed at an Irish side seemingly incapable of winning a knockout match.

Of course that doesn’t mean that the Red Roses aren’t currently the best team on the planet. Sure, one game in the Championship – as well as a WXV 1 crown obtained last year – is a small sample size. And on the evidence of that one game in the Championship, England don’t deserve a whole lot of praise. In fact, if we really wanted to give them their dues, they’d be universally lambasted.

Against Italy, Sarah Beckett’s poor discipline and accuracy at the breakdown saw her rightly red-carded on 11 minutes. For most of the piece Lark Atkin-Davies couldn’t find her jumpers at the line-out. Zoe Harrison apparently left her kicking boots at home until deep in the second half.  Emily Scarratt – arguably the best women’s player of all time – served up absolute dross at inside centre, regularly getting in the way of backline moves, scuffing her passes and over-cooking needless cross-field kicks that floated out on the full.

Were it not for the brilliance of Ellie Kildunne at full-back, or the injection of class supplied by Holly Aitchison, England might have boarded a flight home with an embarrassing loss to their name.

Except that’s not true. No side in Europe can touch England. Their players have been moulded in a fully professional ecosystem for far longer than any of their competitors. They play in by far the best league in the world. Their supporters are passionate, knowledgeable and growing. Young girls can look to them and imagine themselves embarking on a career as a professional rugby player.

Italy are a long way behind on all metrics. Which is why England’s disjointed display should be downgraded further.

Fixture

Womens Six Nations

England Women’s

Wales Women’s

This might come across as overly harsh. The side has a new coach in John Mitchell. He’s an experienced tactician and will enter a home World Cup in 2025 as the favourite to raise the trophy. But this is his first tilt with a women’s side. Mitchell will have to adjust the way he communicates. For all their similarities there are still a few nuanced differences between the men’s and women’s games and the Kiwi coach will learn on the job.

Then there’s the loss of Sarah Hunter. Not only did her dynamism in the loose provide England go-forward – though 22-year-old Sadia Kabeya may yet have an even higher ceiling – the absence of Hunter’s leadership must be having an impact.

Marlie Packer is a titan. She’s as inspirational as Winston Churchill and as destructive as a tsunami. But those are big shoes to fill. Maybe even Packer needs a bit of time to bed in.

Monye isn’t entirely wrong. England are potentially the best sports team in the world of any gender. But until they wrest the World Cup from New Zealand’s grasp, and until they put together a string of complete performances from start to finish, they don’t deserve the honour.

We need to remove the kid gloves and hold them to a higher standard. It’s what their brilliance deserves.



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