"Elevate Our Game" - England's Lark Atkin-Davies and Louis Deacon Ready for Improved Italy in Women's Six Nations Opener - Ruck

“Elevate Our Game” – England’s Lark Atkin-Davies and Louis Deacon Ready for Improved Italy in Women’s Six Nations Opener

After taking the helm as interim head coach throughout the 2023 WXV campaign, Louis Deacon has since returned to his post as forwards coach for the 2024 Women’s Six Nations. Deacon stepped up to take the reins following the retirement of former head coach Simon Middleton, and seamlessly transferred the Red Roses into the new era, that is now being headed up by John Mitchell.

England did not miss a beat during ‘Deacs’ interim run in charge, as they built upon their 2023 Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam with an undefeated calendar year. The Red Roses handed Canada back-to-back defeats in the Summer, before a triumph over the Maple Leaves down in New Zealand in the inaugural WXV1 competition. England clinched the title through additional wins over Australia and the hosting Black Ferns, in what was sweet dose of Rugby World Cup vengeance against New Zealand.

Now, Deacon’s full attention is on prepping his forwards for the upcoming Women’s Six Nations opener against Italy, as the Red Roses head out to Parma for Sunday’s clash. Speaking in an England media conference alongside front-rower Lark Atkin-Davies, Deacon discussed how he is settling back into his previous role, of orchestrating the formidable England pack once again.

“It’s gone smoothly, a lot less pressure. It’s been great to have John Mitchell involved, he’s really driving the engine of not just the players but the coaches as well, to grow their game. Like I touched on, trying to get better at speeding the game up, playing the game at an even faster pace and putting pressure on our opposition. He is really challenging us in finding different ways in how we do that.”

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

Deacon then turned his attention to this weekend’s opponents, as Italian are certainly a side on the up in the past 12 months. The Azzurri were handed a heavy 68-5 defeat by England last time out, but recent progressions within the country are pointing towards a more competitive match-up than what transpired at Franklin’s Gardens last April. In December, the FIR launched their first women’s franchises in partnership with their United Rugby Championship clubs, as Benetton Treviso and Zebre Parma now both boast women’s teams.

England are set to play at the Sergio Lanfranchi Stadium, which is the home of the new Zebre women’s side. Speaking on the importance of these developments in making the Women’s Six Nations more competitive, Deacon expressed his interest in how the Italians are progressing within professionalising women’s rugby.

“Obviously they had a really good WXV, a really good tournament (second in WXV2), and then off the back of that and bringing in the franchises, I think it’s only going to help them play their game. You know, the more players that they have playing in their country it’s really going to help them, as it has done with ourselves and with PWR. So, the whole exposure to good quality rugby is only going to help them.”

Italy have a strong roster of players that fans of the PWR would be familiar with, as the likes of Trailfinders prop Sara Seye and Sale Sharks duo Beatrice Rigoni and Sara Tounesi have been in strong form so far this season. Having taking on some Italian opponents throughout the domestic campaign, Bristol hooker Lark Atkin-Davies is eager to lay down the marker on the international stage. Atkin-Davies discussed what she expects the Italians to bring, after narrowly missing out on silverware to Scotland in WXV2.

Lark Atkin-Davies of England Red Roses during the international friendly match between England Red Roses and Canada women at Sandy Park, Exeter on 23rd Sept 2023. Photo: Izzy Ninnis/PPAUK

“Yeah, absolutely. I think obviously, first of all, WXV was really competitive. So they’re off the back of obviously, three wins in WXV, So they’ll have confidence coming into this game. And obviously, for us is making sure that we’re aware of what we’re going to face, but we’re also really focused on what they can bring.”

“I think personally for myself, I love to be challenged and I love learning anything. That’s something that certainly happened when John Michell come in, and he’s really trying to elevate our game and be that free variety or playing a faster game.

“I think as players, we’re always looking to elevate our game to play the best possible way that we can be.”

Lark Atkin-Davies of England Red Roses on the break during the international friendly match between England Red Roses and Canada women at Sandy Park, Exeter on 23rd Sept 2023. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

Mitchell named his first Women’s Six Nations training squad a week ago on Monday, and included some notable returning legends as well as some fresh faces. Three Red Roses icons and three uncapped bolters have all joined up with the training group, and Atkin-Davies discussed both trios and how they are all settling into this new-look camp with its new-feel culture.

Beginning with the more experienced talents, Emily Scarratt, Abbie Ward and Zoe Harrison have all returned to the England squad. Scarratt and Harrison have recovered from lenghty injury spells, whilst Abby Ward is set to play her first England matches after having a baby last Autumn. Atkin-Davies is thrilled to have the three players back in the camp, who are already contributing to the new leadership group, known as the ‘Game Drivers’.

Maud Muir of England Red Roses and Lark Atkin-Davies of England Red Roses after the international friendly match between England Red Roses and Canada women at Sandy Park, Exeter on 23rd Sept 2023. Photo: Izzy Ninnis/PPAUK

“It’s amazing to have those guys back in. The wealth of experience that they have, and obviously the personal individual journeys that they’ve been on, it’s great to have them back. Also, we are probably at a stage where we’re being challenged in our learnings, so for them to come back in, it’s a really good place for them to join us. But also, like I said, the experience and the knowledge that they can bring as players both on and off the pitch is really valuable to us. So it’s great to have them back in.”

Finishing up the discussion, the Bristol front-rower discussed the new arrivals in the England camp who have already made a strong impression. Trailfinders wing Vicky Laflin, along with Exeter back-row Maddie Faeunati and hooker Lizzie Hanlon, have all begun to impress the coaching staff, and settle into life in the Red Roses training camp.

“Really well, I think we want to make sure that we will make people feel at home as possible, and come into an environment feeling like they can come in and be themselves and thrive. I think we’ve seen that so far. Three really great players, I’ve known Vicky Laflin for quite a long time, so it’s great to see her, after obviously pretty difficult season with Worcester (financial collapse in October.) So it’s great to have them in, and the confidence that they bring and being in this house is really important to us.”

“I think it shows sort of the power of the PWR, and seeing the talent that we have across the squads in that. Having competitive games week in week out, but also obviously showing the development of players coming through.

“I think, you know, Maddie’s fitted in seamlessly here. So I think it’s a credit to her but also the journey that she’s been on as well. So like I said, you see it week in week out, with players putting their hands up, to put themselves forward to be a red rose. So, it’s certainly an exciting time for young and old players.