"She's the Heartbeat of Our Team" - Zoe Aldcroft Praises Marlie Packer's 100th Cap & Returning Abbie Ward for Italy Clash - Ruck

“She’s the Heartbeat of Our Team” – Zoe Aldcroft Praises Marlie Packer’s 100th Cap & Returning Abbie Ward for Italy Clash

England lock Zoe Aldcroft is ready for the 2024 Women’s Six Nations to commence, as she is set to rekindle her second row partnership with returning Red Rose Abbie Ward. The Gloucester-Hartpury star has partnered up with Ward in the majority of her England appearences, and will pack down the engine room in Sunday’s match against Italy.

Aldcroft and Ward have been England’s first choice locks for nearly 20 test matches, and the second row spoke about how she is excited to bind back up with the Bristol Bears star. Ward took an extended leave from the rugby pitch through pregnancy, and had an incredible turn around to get back to the pitch after giving birth.

Ward was back tearing up the PWR pitches just 17 weeks later, in an incredible feat that has been admired by Aldcroft and England Women’s head coach John Mitchell. Ward is amongst a trio of returning England players along with Emily Scarratt and Zoe Harrison, who have not seen on-field action since the 2022 Rugby World Cup Final defeat to New Zealand.

Aldcroft and Mitchell spoke about Ward, in today’s England media sessions at their Pennyhill Park training camp. Aldcroft discussed her admiration for her teammate, whilst Mitchell expressed how despite earning the start against Italy, competition is rife for the returning lock to keep her place.

Abbie Ward of Bristol Bears Women on the break during the Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby Match between Bristol Bears Women and Sale Sharks Women at Ashton Gate, Bristol on the 18th November. PHOTO: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

“I think it just shows her dedication.” Aldcroft said. “She is probably one of the most determined people I’ve ever met. I think it just is an absolute credit to her how hard she’s worked to come back from having a baby. Just being a trailblazer, to be able to do that and come back in such good nick, into a team and start at the weekend. I think it’s really impressive”

“I said earlier that it’s important to get the girls returning, Abbie being one of them.” Mitchell said. “I mean, unbelievable achievement to come back from motherhood and still be driven to be the best the best lock in the world. That’s the kind of person she is. So she’s leaving no stone unturned in terms of her detail and her wanting to get physically more capacity as well.

“But, she’s challenged, you can definitely see in her eyes that she’s challenged. She knows there’s plenty a heap of competition, and it’s not going to be an easy task. So I guess from her point of view, we just have small conversations around just focusing on performance, your leadership will take care of itself naturally. Just bear in mind that you know, I haven’t seen you (Ward) play international rugby. So you’ve got to get runs on the board first. And that’s all she can control.”

Zoe Aldcroft of England Red Roses on the break trying to evade Gabrielle Senft of Canada’s Womens Rugby during the international friendly match between England Red Roses and Canada women at Sandy Park, Exeter on 23rd Sept 2023. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

Aldcroft has too battled back from an injury, having spent a prolonged stint on the side-lines with a Media Collateral Ligament rupture. The lock is eagerly anticipating the return to on-field duties, with the trip to sunny Italy not coming fast enough for the enthusiastic second row.

“I think, obviously, we’ve only had a couple weeks and build up. But really excited to fly to Italy, hopefully get a little bit of sun. But yeah, just really excited to kind of put all the new things that we’ve learned over the last couple of weeks, and improve on from the WXV from there, and then build it into the Six Nations. And then hopefully, we’ll grow every game, and hopefully, it will be a successful Six Nations.”

The 2021 World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year is one of six Gloucester-Hartpury players named in Mitchell’s match day 23, as she starts in the scrum alongside back-row Sarah Beckett. On the bench, the quartet of Mackenzie Carson, Maud Muri, Alex Matthews and Natasha ‘Mo’ Hunt are all set to make an impact, in what Aldcroft believes speaks volumes of the Cherry and White culture.

“Yeah, it’s lovely to have the girls in I think, hopefully, we can bring a little bit of our culture into this team environment. So I think it’s really nice to be able to have those girls around. And obviously lots of familiar faces there. You see day in day out and are really good friends.”

“I’d say at Gloucester-Hartpury, everyone’s welcome, everyone involved, and we want everyone to feel that here. We want everyone to enjoy each other’s company. I think that’s the most important thing, When you spend so much time with each other in camp, it’s important that you create those bonds, you create that culture and that’s what we’re trying to do as an England team as well.

Zoe Aldcroft of England Red Roses before the international friendly match between England Red Roses and Canada women at Sandy Park, Exeter on 23rd Sept 2023. Photo: Izzy Ninnis/PPAUK

“I think we’ve come on leaps and bounds over WXV, and going into the Six Nations. I think ‘Mitch’ has brought that in and really driven that, so I think that’s where we’re going to go up and up, the more connected we are off the field more connected, we can be on the field.”

Speaking on her head coach, Mitchell has once again named Marlie Packer to lead out the side with the Saracen taking the headlines ahead of her 100th test cap. Packer becomes only the seventh women’s player to achieve the accolade for England, as she joins the company occupied by her returning teammate Emily Scarratt.

Zoe Aldcroft 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

Aldcroft is closing in on the 50 cap mark, and should all go to plan will make the half century against Wales at Bristol’s Ashton Gate. Speaking on her captain’s centurion milestone, Aldcroft said;

“Marlie has always been a massive part of this team. She’s the heartbeat. She’s the energy that that we need. When it’s raining outside, she’s always in the changing room jeering up up, on the pitch, she’ll be the loudest voice.

“You can always trust her to make the big hits, the big jackals in those key moments, when you’re actually on the pitch. She’s just a talisman in our team, she’s the heartbeat of it and just unbelievable leader.”

Marlie Packer of England Women looks to evade Kelsie Wills of New Zealand Women during the autumn international match between England Women and New Zealand Women at Sandy Park on 31 Oct 2021. Photo: Phil Mingo/PPAUK

Packer crossed over for a brace of tries the last time England and Italy met on the test match stage. The two scores came in England’s landslide 68-5 win at Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens, in a match that saw the Red Roses run in a stunning dozen in the land of the Saints. Italy have since had a taste of success, with three solid wins over South Africa, Japan and the United States in last Autumn’s WXV2 competition.

Aldcroft believes that Italy’s recent victories will put them in a confident head space, ahead of a match which has previously put England in as the favourites. Italy do still retain their underdog approach for the fixture, but could spring a few surprises on the Red Roses when they meet in Parma. Aldcroft and head coach Mitchell spoke about how they are expecting the unexpected from the Azzurri, with Sunday set to host a firecracker of a fixture.

“I’ve heard that they’ve been in camp a lot, have been together a lot more recently. So I think it’d be good to see like where they’re at as a team and hopefully could be good to get some good competition in the Six Nations.” Aldcroft said.

“Yeah, they’ll play from 100 meters out.” Mitchell added. “They will, they tend to with the pressure that we stack on them, they’ll try and get out of that. So there’ll be a few ‘Hail Marys’ I think, and offloads and attacking kicks and all those sorts of things.

“We need to stay alive in any given situation because they have that expression they have that in their nature. Then there’ll be obviously buoyed by the fact that they are playing at home. So I’m sure there’ll be an emotional start as well. But they’re all things that we’re ready to respond to.”