Drive to thrive: how the Red Roses built an unstoppable maul

There are three certainties in modern life: death, taxes and England’s rolling maul try in the Women’s World Cup. For the victims ensnared by the giant white anaconda, there can be no escape from the inevitable endgame. It rarely takes long for another Red Rose forward to be run over the line under a huge pile of limbs.

It has reached the point where England no longer needs to try much else. Their modus operandi has been very effective and none of their opponents have yet found an antidote. If Canada is to have any chance in Saturday’s semifinals, they will have to stand up to an irresistible force that has crushed almost everything in its path thus far.

Whether or not that qualifies as exciting viewing depends on your nationality and definition of oval entertainment. What cannot be denied is the brutal technical excellence of the monster masses, for which England’s forwards coach, Louis Deacon, deserves his fair share of credit. The former men’s international has been in the post for just 15 months but his impact has been clear enough.

For anyone familiar with the Leicester pack in which he played in the noughties, there is also a definite sense of deja vu. For years the Tigers’ maul was just as unstoppable, with poachers like Neil Back at the back to finish things off. “One of the things I wanted to instill is that an England set-piece has to be dominant and feared,” Deacon says flatly. “The opposition have to be worried about certain aspects of what we do. That’s how I’ve been brought up. Often it’s just about doing the basics incredibly well.”

Some might see it as an unlikely marriage: the most macho of alpha male mindsets transplanted into an elite female sports environment. What Deacon has increasingly found, however, is that England’s women are cut from the same cloth as Martin Johnson, Richard Cockerill, Darren Garforth, Graham Rowntree and all the other cauliflower-eared alumni in the Tigers’ hall of fame. “Their mentality is just like a men’s team,” said the 42-year-old, who won 29 caps for England and made 274 club appearances during a 15-year Leicester career.

“They love the physical, confrontational parts of the game just like men do. There’s no difference. It’s rugby, just played by women.” While coaching men and women isn’t a completely uniform process – “Your approach has to be very different” – he’s also learned that he can raise his voice and be verbally blunt if standards are in danger of slipping. “When I first came in I thought you couldn’t be a whiner or a raver. But sometimes they like that approach, as long as it’s not all the time.”

Forwards coach Louis Deacon conducts a training session in Auckland
Forwards coach Louis Deacon conducts an England training session in Auckland. Photograph: Phil Walter/RFU/The RFU Collection/Getty Images

The results are self-evident anyway. The only question mark is whether they will be forced, at some stage, to revert to a more subtle Plan B only to find that their wider attacking game has caught on. Interestingly, Deacon fully agrees that championship teams cannot be one-trick ponies. “One hundred percent. If you have a strong set piece, that’s your backbone. But you also have to be able to play an all-round type of game and be able to pull the trigger in the backline when you need to.”

However, he is confident that the Red Roses can play in a variety of ways if needed. “It doesn’t concern me. In training we don’t just maul endlessly. But when we come to the games we just do what is required for that particular job. We have things in the cupboard to play a different style if we need to.”

As well as imparting expert advice – “We built it from the bottom right up” – Deacon is also particularly well placed to offer valuable insight into the importance of athletes seizing career-defining moments when they come.

Having been a member of England’s men’s World Cup squad in 2011, he knows from personal experience what it feels like to sit in an Auckland hotel and wait for a big knockout match at Eden Park. In his case, things did not go as hoped, with England losing 19-12 to eventual finalists France in the quarter-finals. “It was disappointing because it was a missed opportunity. On another day I think we would have won. If we had, we would have played Wales in the semi-final.

The Red Roses are consequently repeatedly warned not to let their focus slip. “So far the girls have done incredibly well, but as I keep reminding them, we have to keep looking to get better. We’ve talked to them about the pressure of the moment, but to be honest, I think the girls like the challenge.” Maul or nothing?England’s rampant forwards are in no mood to back down now.

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