"Earn the Right to Win" - Red Roses Head Coach John Mitchell Expects Tough Tests for England In Women's Six Nations - Ruck

“Earn the Right to Win” – Red Roses Head Coach John Mitchell Expects Tough Tests for England In Women’s Six Nations

England begin their 2024 Women’s Six Nations campaign this Sunday, as they head out to Parma for an opening round battle with Italy. The Red Roses are the defending Grand Slam holders, and are eyeing up a sixth consecutive title retention in the Championship.

England Women have entered a new era, following the appointment of head coach John Mitchell to the helm. ‘Mitch’ arrived at the England camp during last Autumn’s WXV1 tournament, which saw England achieve a trio of wins against Australia, Canada and New Zealand to win the inaugural title. Mitchell joined the group mid-way through the campaign, after his role upon the Japan men coaching staff came to an end at the Rugby World Cup.

Mitchell took up an advisory role as the self professed ‘invisible man’, with interim head coach Louis Deacon calling the shots with selection. Now, the New Zealander is firmly in charge, and recently named his first Red Roses squad for the Women’s Six Nations. Mitchell attended the recent launch event for the 2024 Women’s Six Nations, and gave a press conference upon the readiness of his squad.

The 59-year-old began by discussing how despite their expected success in the tournament, his side are fired up to prove themselves in a test. Mitchell believes his side are ready to lay down a marker in the Six Nations, with the 2025 Rugby World Cup in England creeping in ever closer.

John Mitchell, England defence coach during the Autumn Nations Cup match between England and Georgia at Twickenham Stadium, Twickenham, London on November 14 2020. – PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“(We are) Excited. Also, but very respectful of the Six Nations tournament. I see the importance, obviously, from our point of view is that it’s a homegrown tournament. So it’s tournament that I guess that we’ve been able to continue to create an identity through. So that’s really important.

“It’s also a competition where we’ve got to earn the right to win and to win a test match. It’s an opportunity also to, we’re what, 15 or 16 months away from a World Cup at home. So it takes great importance for us to make sure that we also preserve the opportunity to play at Twickenham, because we’d love to play there on a more of a consistent basis. So we’ve still got a bit of work to do there. And that’s up to us.”

Speaking on his role during England’s triumphant WXV campaign, Mitchell expressed how he was impressed with what his saw down in New Zealand. The Hawera-born head coach created further alignment with his coaching staff at the competition, as after a brief layover at home, he caught up with Deacon, and England legend turned pathway coach Sarah Hunter.

John Mitchell, head coach of England A during England Rugby training session at The Lensbury Hotel, Teddington, London on 24 June 2021. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“Sitting as the ‘Invisible Man’, I guess as I was appointed in May (2023). I had an opportunity to create some strategy in between Japan camps. We obviously agreed on some new developments, agreed on some things we wanted to do, in our environment, even did a great job in terms of transferring that into WXV.

“I had the opportunity after a small sleep at home, to be able to get down there and be part of the tournament, obviously got the opportunity to start on my relationships. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to grow those relationships even more, create new connections and definitely create further alignment in terms of what we’re doing. So that’s been what my major focus has been.”

Marlie Packer, Captain of England Women lifts the Womens Six Nations Trophy during the TikTok Womens Six Nations Match between England Women and France Women at Twickenham, London on 29 April 2023 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

The question then is for Mitchell, how do you improve upon this England team that only know how to win. The Red Roses are the number one ranked women’s side in the world, five-time consecutive winners of the Women’s Six Nations, and took the top title in the first ever WXV tournament. The illusive accolade lies within the Women’s Rugby World Cup, and with the competition held on home soil next season, Mitchell is growing his side’s attacking options, in order to go one better than their silver medals from New Zealand ’22.

“Yeah, it’s a good question. This team has a winning mentality. So that’s pretty important to us. But if we just solely focus on that, I don’t think it’d be too enjoyable. So the great thing what I love about the environment is the girls want to improve, and they’re focusing on improvement.
94 days ago, I think they sent a message to the rest of the world (33-12 WXV win against New Zealand).

“We’re pretty serious on improving that. 94 days ago was in Auckland, a memory, and so how do we go about that is quite simple, we want to get quicker at our game. We want to create more pressure on the opposition. We want to present opportunities and take opportunities. But we want to probably give ourselves more multiple options in the way that we attack.

“I think, quite clearly we can go route one, and we can use the strengths of our DNA, which we will continue to do and if opposition present that to us, we’ll take that. But I think with where we are now, and where we want to be in 18 months time, it’s important that we had to have multiple options in our attack.”

“We will be put under pressure at some point in this tournament. We need to respond not react. So it’s up to us to be prepared for that we weren’t prepared for that in the last World Cup. And it cost us so we it’s a big learning for us. We don’t want to go there again. So yeah, if sides can put us under pressure, then it’s going to make us better as well.”

The next obstacle in the road for England in their opening match of the Women’s Six Nations, as they take on Italy this Sunday in Parma. One of the fastest growing women’s rugby nations, in December, the FIR announced the first two women’s rugby franchises to be launched from their United Rugby Championship clubs, Zebre and Benetton Treviso.

Italy were also inches away from the WXV2 title, as the missed out on points difference to champions Scotland, by a mere margin of just two points. Mitchell expects a mixed-bag against the ‘Azzurri’, as the opening rounds of test match tournaments can often drum up some ‘clunky’ passages of play from both sides.

“Your first games are always a little bit clunky for anyone. They’re at home. So we need to embrace that and take that on. But, it doesn’t matter what competition you play in. I’m a great believer that if you build confidence through winning, which the tiered system (WXV) has created for a lot of the teams, then to me, they (Italy) should take a lot from that. That will be a strength to them.”

“But again, we need to focus on ourselves. When you have the Six Nations, you have less time to prepare compared to a pre-season, like a WXV. So the challenge for us is to focus on ourselves. And we don’t have a lot of time to do that.”

Marlie Packer of England Women acknowledges the rugby fans after the autumn international match between England Women and New Zealand Women at Sandy Park on 31 Oct 2021. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

Packer is expected to lead the side out this Sunday in Parma, yet Mitchell did give the back-row the opportunity to save her century for the home-region reception in Bristol (against Wales) or for the grander stage of Twickenham (against Ireland). Mitchell explained how Packer wants to lead her side from the get-go, and is impressed by the due diligence of the Saracen ahead of the opening round battle.

As previously reported in our talking points from the Women’s Six Nations launch article, England have called up three uncapped players for the competition. The Exeter Chiefs duo of Maddie Feaunati and Lizzie Hanlon join the fray, along with Vicky Laflin of Trailfinders Women. Marlie Packer has again been named as captain, and will make her 100th test cap the next time she takes to the pitch.

Marlie Packer, Captain of England Women celebrates with the Womens Six Nations Trophy during the TikTok Womens Six Nations Match between England Women and France Women at Twickenham, London on 29 April 2023 (Photo: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK)

“What a fantastic achievement to have 100 tests for your country, seventh English woman to do that. I rang Marlie back in May, I think those conversations were very fruitful, gave us some clarity on the kind of the things that initially wanted to challenge, and also on things that I needed more information on. So I think that was really helpful.

“I kept in touch with her during the World Cup. So that was also very helpful. And then so now that I got to know Marlie a lot more, and I’m now working with her on a day to day basis, I find her very homely I find her very considered, she’s a mother, she’s very balanced. She’s authentic, she’s very much herself.

“When she does speak she doesn’t speak for long. She’s well respected within the group and one thing you can guarantee is that she lives by her actions. So, sometimes when the test match gets tough, she’s a sort of person that will definitely take us forward. Those are the special qualities that I think that she possesses, and I’ve only known her for a small period of time.”