Alex Matthews insists England have banished the demons of their World Cup final defeat as they chase a fifth straight Women’s Six Nations title.
The all-conquering Red Roses’ record-breaking unbeaten run of 30 matches came to a shuddering halt as they lost 34-31 to New Zealand in a final that had almost had its conclusion written before it was played.
Amidst the post-mortem of what happened on that day in Eden Park, long-term head coach Simon Middleton announced he would be stepping down at the end of the Six Nations as England continued to work out what went wrong.
Yet Matthews revealed it is not all doom and gloom in camp, as the side’s focus returns to retaining the championship they have so utterly dominated for the past few years.
“Since our review weekend, we haven’t mentioned it again,” said Matthews. “Our thing now is growing the gap to the other five teams.
“Obviously, it was heart-breaking to begin with. You spend so much time together, I think some girls felt quite lost getting back to normal life.
“I have always told myself it is just a game. I enjoy it and that’s why I play but you have to be quite sensitive with how everyone is dealing with it. You have to let everyone deal with it individually in their own way.”
Six Nations Rugby, the official organising body responsible for the Women’s Six Nations, broke all fan engagement records in 2022 and highlighted its commitment to giving the women’s game the best possible platform to grow.
The 2023 edition of the championship stands to build on this progress, with even bigger crowds expected, more international broadcasters covering all the action and unprecedented social and digital promotion for the heroes of the women’s game.
While England’s status as favourites remains, the 2023 championship arrives with plenty of change.
All six sides now have some form of professional contracts, with Ireland and Scotland both handing out a tranche of deals since last year.
France and Italy both have new coaches, while England themselves are missing a number of key players including star centre Emily Scarratt and second row Abbie Ward, meaning Matthews is expecting fewer one-sided matches that have previously been common.
“All these nations are now becoming professional and this year they may be at the same standard, so it is just about pushing on and getting even better,” she added.
“We want to be challenged, we want to get more people to the games, that is what excites people.
“I think this is going to be the best Women’s Six Nations yet with every team on full-time programmes and with players getting those opportunities to better themselves.”
“We are such a competitive group, every training session we are challenging each other, pushing each other, asking questions of each other, and we would not be in the place we have been for the last 18 months if we did not have that.”
A key change for England after this championship will be the departure of Middleton, who has been a near-monolithic figure in the development of the women’s game since becoming head coach in 2015.
There is change too on the pitch, with injuries affording opportunities to new faces and a focus on developing an attack that has often been criticised for its over-reliance on lineouts and driving mauls.
“Attack is definitely an area that came up in our review,” revealed Matthews. “We want to be able to play a bit more, the girls to have confidence to play and not just kick for lineouts which we know we are good at.
“We need to be able to adapt to be able to do all of it for when those moments come.
“It gives the girls the opportunity to showcase what they have got. They came into training last week and the running lines, offloading game, it excited me on the side of the pitch watching.
“It shows the girls in the Premiership that it is achievable, as long as they are playing well for clubs consistently, they can play for their country which is so important to keep that drive.”
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