We are fast approaching the start of the inaugural WXV global competition, which is a ground-breaking new tournament for international Women’s rugby. After winning the 2023 Women’s Six Nations, England have been seeded into the top tier of WXV1, to take on Australia, Canada and tournament hosts New Zealand.
England are joined by 2023 Women’s Six Nations runners-up France and bronze medallists Wales in WXV1, as the qualifiers from Europe. Scotland and Italy slot into WXV2 in South Africa, whilst Ireland head over to Dubai for WXV3.
The Red Roses finalised their preparations for the tournament with back-to-back victories over Canada in warm-up test matches. England defeated the North Americans 50-24 at Exeter’s Sandy Park, before following this up with a 29-12 win at Saracens’ StoneX Stadium to close out September. England’s flying fullback Ellie Kildunne shone in both fixtures, with two tries in the first test and one more in the second.
Kildunne knows all too well the threat that the Canadians pose, after their recent meeting in the 2021 Rugby World Cup semi-finals (played in 2022). The Red Roses won that match 26-19, and progressed on to an eventual defeat in the final, against the Black Ferns of New Zealand.
Kildunne scored a try against the Black Ferns in last year’s Rugby World Cup Final, yet despite England’s best efforts, New Zealand claimed a dramatic 34-31 victory on home soil. England close out their WXV1 campaign against the Black Ferns, in a return match of last year’s final. Once again the action takes place in New Zealand, and once again Kildunne is ready for the Black Ferns to lay down the challenge with the Haka.
The Harlequins star knows just how significant this closing WXV match is, as November 4th marks a true test early in this new era of the Red Roses. John Mitchell’s new side are building towards World Champion’s glory, when they host the 2025 Rugby World Cup.
“It was daunting obviously playing New Zealand in New Zealand, but we had put the work in to ensure that didn’t affect us, and it didn’t affect us. If I’m honest, when it comes to the Haka I couldn’t even see the Haka going on, because the sunlight was directly my eyes, so maybe that was to my advantage, because it is scary facing it.
“I learned when I was out there, that the Haka is a sign of respect. So suddenly that became really different when they were doing it in front of us. It became less intimidating to know that they were doing it, and it was more respectful. To play New Zealand in New Zealand, in a sold out Eden Park, is something that not a lot of people can say. And I’m so proud to be part of that team who did that.
“Yes, it would have been amazing to win. I’d love to be sat here telling you, ‘winning the World Cup was amazing, doing it in New Zealand’ but we didn’t do it. We are just so ready for the next World Cup to come around. It’s not a revenge match in when we play against them (in WXV), it’s more of a ‘let’s see where we’re at’.
“This is an opportunity to see where we are at as a team, like I said, we’re new, we’re growing. Let’s just have a go, and be part of that whole experience again. So that come 2025 (Rugby World Cup), we do feel ready, we do feel prepared, because nothing could have made us more prepared, than where we were.
“So, if we can take next step, in the two years that we’ve got to keep on building, we can only try our hardest and be in the best place we can possibly be, through our training. To make sure that I’m not sat here telling you, ‘it would have been great to win’, but actually then, I’ll be telling you that we are winners, and how it felt to be a world champion as well.”
“It’s going to happen. We will do it. We are doing everything already, I’m doing everything I can already. We’ve got a spark inside us now, because we lost that World Cup, we could have won that World Cup. So we’ve now got this spark, and this drive that other teams don’t have because they weren’t as close as us.
“We’ve got that up, we’ve got that advantage that other teams don’t have, because it was in arm’s reach. So we’re running with that. And we’re using that to our advantage to keep on pushing further and further, and ultimately to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The finale of the 2023 Women’s Six Nations marked the end of an era for England’s Women’s side. After eight years in the job, Head Coach Simon Middleton stepped down from the role, with John Mitchell now set to join up with the side, following his run as Japan’s Defence Coach at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Middleton’s final match in charge saw England win their fifth consecutive Women’s Six Nations title, and complete impressive back-to-back Grand Slams.
England’s all-time record appearance holder for Women and Men, Sarah Hunter also hung up her boots during the latest Women’s Six Nations, after 141 test caps. The legendary lock bowed out in her home city of Newcastle, in the opening fixture against Scotland. Hunter has since joined the Red Roses coaching staff to usher in the next generation, and Kildunne discussed this new coaching set-up ahead of the all-important WXV1 campaign.
“I think it’s really good. I think the coaching staff that we had before were brilliant, they’ve taken us on many leaps and bounds and ultimately, we’re very successful because of ourselves, but also because of the coaches that we had.
“And I don’t know whether that’s the right time or the wrong time, but I’m just looking forward to what’s coming. I really like the new group of coaching staff that we have. And ultimately having Sarah Hunter still in camp is something that’s really nice as well. Because she’s such a fundamental player and person to the team, it can help guide us when there is actually a lot of change going on.
“And she knows what it feels like to be a player, so she’s there for us as players, and for the team to be successful, as we have been in the past. So yeah, it’s a good time. It’s exciting, it’s new and ultimately it’s going to bring a new Red Roses team to life, that hopefully can come 2025, be a little bit more successful than we were at the last one.”
As Kildunne mentioned earlier, the Red Roses played in front of a packed house at Eden Park for the last year’s Rugby World Cup Final, as 42,579 supporters set a new new attendance record for a Women’s Rugby match. This record was shattered in the finale of the 2023 TikTok Women’s Six Nations, as England defeated France in front of 58,498 fans. The upward trajectory is expected to continue, with Killdunne and co rallying behind the immense support.
“I didn’t expect it, no one expected that to happen that soon. I think we all thought on the back of the World Cup Final that it was pretty cool having over 42,000 at the World Cup final, which was a record breaking crowd for women’s rugby game.
“And to come back, I think we expected there to be quite a few people coming to watch. But never did we imagine it to be that much, that quickly. And it just shows how many people actually are behind us, how many people are following the game and how quickly the game is growing. I expected that by the (2025) World Cup.
“So I can only sit here and hope that it keeps on growing the way that it is already. People keep on coming down. People keep on realising that it is pretty cool to watch girls play rugby, and come 2025 we are selling out Twickenham every time. Which will be quite a cool statement to say.”
Kildunne is certainly at the forefront for the progression of the Red Roses, and the wider scope of Women’s Rugby both on and off the field. Ellie Kildunne is a Canterbury ambassador, and was speaking at the launch of Canterbury New Zealand’s latest women’s apparel collection, as the first female rugby player to have an apparel range in conjunction with a rugby brand.
This milestone Canterbury collaboration ties into Kildunne’s life motto of ‘lukewarm is no good.’ This quote was first quipped by author Roald Dahl, and portrays Kildunne’s approach to giving everything that you’ve got to a cause, and not sitting inside your comfort zone. The 24-year-old discussed how this motto has inspired her throughout her rugby journey, and she will take it with her to the first ever WXV tournament.
“Well, I never thought that I’d be part of creating a clothing range for starters. So I think if I was going to bring that motto in with that, I’ve kind of jumped in the deep end, and so have Canterbury. It’s the first female rugby player doing it, so they’ve jumped into the deep end as well. And that’s coming away from that whole ‘lukewarm’.
“They could have just been like, ‘oh, here’s our clothing wear this’, and ‘can you get a picture doing this’, but actually, they’re taking it that step further, and allowed me to create something myself. It’s a really cool time to be part of.
“And with that, and going into WXV, it’s almost inspired me. Little things like that throughout, I don’t necessarily think about the quote, it’s just things that remind me, to keep on living by it. This has definitely been that, even coming in today and speaking to people and getting photos and stuff.
It’s just inspired me to keep on doing that, and I’m really looking forward to the next few games and hopefully the selection for the WXV, and to go out there and keep on living by that motto. Because big things are coming for women’s rugby, but big things are coming from me, whether it being this (clothing) range, or as a rugby player, and as a person.
“But it’s just that, the gentle reminder, that ‘lukewarm is no good’. You’re not going to get anywhere if you sit in lukewarm, so you just sometimes put the heat on and just go for something. This has definitely been an example of doing that. So I’m just really excited to see where it can go. And it’s not the end point, it’s the start of a really cool journey with Canterbury that I’m really looking forward to.”
England’s current crop of young emerging talents will certainly be following Kildunne’s motto for the trip to New Zealand. Four new-coming Red Roses have made the WXV1 squad, in Saracens trio Kelsley Clifford, Sophie Bridger, and Ella Wywras, as well as Exeter back-row Maisy Allen. These upcoming stars will want nothing more than to stamp their intentions for future England caps, as momentum builds for the 2025 Rugby World Cup.
Killdune recognises how important the WXV is to trying out the new talents, as the 36-capped Red Rose previewed the upcoming trip to the home of the Black Ferns.
“Ultimately, we’re in a new setup we’re under new coaching staff, we’ve got a few new players and new faces, but we’ve put the work in the past four weeks, been in camp. And beyond that when we’re in pre-pre-season, which is before the first pre-season, to put ourselves in the best shape to, to go and attack it and bring something new that people haven’t seen before.
“We’ve got really good group of players that are all so skilful, and a lot of hybrid players that don’t necessarily just do one thing, they can do multiple things, so you don’t really know what’s coming. So, I’m really looking forward to seeing where as a team, we can push ourselves and be in uncomfortable positions, where we’re playing slightly differently to normal.
“But like the two matches before (against Canada), we’re playing, and (that’s) giving us that opportunity to work ourselves out a little bit. Like I said, it’s a bit of a new squad. And there’s quite a lot of young girls coming in as well. So, giving them the opportunity to firstly put on the shirt, but also, to play on a world stage, is something that everyone’s looking forward to watching.
“And ultimately, on the back of playing against France at Twickenham, with the amount of supporters that we had, I just can’t wait to be playing in front of that many, playing in front of loads of people that have been behind us before.”
Kildunne closed out the discussion by turning her attention to her Harlequins teammates. The fullback has been a mainstay at the Twickenham Stoop, since joining from Wasps in 2021. Kildunne is set to re-unite with a trio of Quins stars in England’s opening WXV match, yet they will be lining up against the fullback in the gold and green of Australia.
Quins’ lock Kaitlan Leaney, back-rower Emily Chancellor and fly half Bella McKenzie were all involved in the Wallaroos WXV qualification campaign, in the 2023 Pacific Four Series. Kildunne is excited to get out to New Zealand to see her Quins teammates, and have a catch-up after clashing on the pitch.
“To be fair, they’ve been out in Australia since the end of the season. So we actually haven’t seen them, because they’ve had a few games out there for Australia. But I’m sure once we get out there, there’ll be a be a bit more tongue and cheek.
“Because we’re super tight as a squad anyway, but I think they’re very much focused on just getting themselves together. We’re focused on us getting together. So I’m just looking forward to being able to have a coffee and a catch up, once we’re out there with my friends and my teammates”
After missing out on the play-offs for the 2022/23 Premier 15s season, Kildunne is eager to see her side bounce back for the re-branded 2023/24 Premiership Women’s Rugby. There is an exciting season ahead, with Ealing Trailfinders embarking on their maiden campaign, having recently bolstered their ranks with England and now former Harlequins winger Abby Dow.
“I think the Premiership is going to be really interesting this year. There’s a lot of movement that’s gone on in the past few months, with players jumping across to different teams. And I think it’ll give a new level of competition that’s different to what we’ve had before.
“It’s exciting. it’s definitely challenging. And I think as Quinn’s were super excited, I’ve only been in a little bit because of international duty. But when I went in, I was really happy with the level that we’re at, we’ve got a lot of new young girls, really young girls, but they’re pushing. they’re pushing the people that are already there, the established girls and they’re fresh.
‘And that’s something that’s really exciting going into the Prem. Yeah, we can just keep on pushing. I want to make top four… I don’t want to just make top four, I want to win the final. So we’ll just keep on going the way that we’re heading, and hopefully it’ll be a positive.
“And then for the likes of Ealing, you don’t know what to expect. I’ve been under Giselle (Mather) before, And she’s such a good coach and a brilliant person as well. And she’ll bring the best out of everybody both on and off the pitch. So, I’m looking forward to playing against them. If I’m honest, I’ve got a few friends over there.
“They’ve got a lot of international players. And that just pushes the English players to do better, in different ways of playing rugby different outlooks on it. And yeah, ultimately, I’m looking forward to seeing where it will take us, not just an individual, but as a team as well.”