As veterans of a sport go, Rochelle Clark is up there with the longest-serving. She’s been synonymous with the England Women’s rugby team since making her debut against the USA in 2003, and is now preparing to compete at her third consecutive World Cup finals after amassing an astonishing 91 caps.
As the squad get together to begin their final preparations for the tournament in France, the Worcester player says the women’s game has made huge strides since she won her first cap eleven years ago.
“The level of professionalism throughout the game has massively increased,” she says. “England, and all the other nations, have had a lot more backing. The strength and conditioning programmes that we’ve got now are a lot tougher – they take the latest knowledge and put it into play with us. The physicality has increased, and tactically teams are playing a lot better.
“Everything’s improved, really. It’s definitely heading in the right direction, and we’re getting a lot more media support. Today marks a monumental moment – the launch of our World Cup campaign, with Chris Robshaw leading that from the front.”
It is testament to Clark, then, that she has moved with the times and all the changes they have brought, and remained in the England set-up for so long. Certainly, the quality of the players she plays with, and against, has markedly improved.
“Players are starting younger now – you’ve got school-age girls taking up the game, and when they go into the adult game they’ve already played for two, three, four years,” she points out. “They’ve already got the skills that they need for the game, so there’s a lot more support and opportunity to play.”
With the Women’s World Cup looming large on the horizon – the first fixture is on 1st August – interest in the game is set to pique once again.
England have made the last three finals of the sport’s showpiece event, on each occasion losing out to the All Blacks – something Robshaw himself can sympathise with given recent events. That said, they have beaten New Zealand in their last few encounters and Clark, having experienced two of those final losses, is confident this year the trophy will be returning to England.
“This is the best prepared we’ve been – we’ve been training hard, and with the disappointment of 2010 we’re taking that forward and making sure we’re ready. It’s always a tough encounter against them [New Zealand] but we’re definitely up for it, and we’re going for that one better – winning the gold.”
It’s not just New Zealand that pose a threat, however. England used to dominate the Six Nations, but not so anymore. They won seven tournaments in a row, six of which were Grand Slams, between 2006 and 2012, but since then it’s been a lean time – the past two years have seen Grand Slams for Ireland and France. And with the tournament on home soil for this year’s winners, Clark knows there are plenty of obstacles to overcome on the road to being crowned champions.
“France in France are always a strong force to go up against; Canada are a really physical, fit team so they’ll be tough; Samoa will be up for it, physical. All the games are going to be tough!”
Clark’s experience will be vital to England’s chances, but even if England do win the World Cup there’s still one more target in the veteran prop’s sights – becoming the most-capped England player of all time.
“The ultimate goal – my main focus – is to win the World Cup, but then in the back of my mind I’ve got that 100 caps to go for. Hopefully I can overtake Amy Garnett, who’s the current holder.”
Despite a trophy-laden and lengthy career, the fire burns just as fiercely as ever.
“I’ve got two silver medals and I’m not quite done yet! I’ve got to get the gold, so I’m definitely more hungry than ever.”
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43