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

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There are three certainties in modern life: death, taxes and English rolling maul tries at the women’s World Cup. For the victims ensnared by the giant white anaconda there can be no escape from the inevitable end game. It rarely takes long for another Red Rose forward to be driven over the line beneath a huge pile of limbs.

It has reached the point where England no longer need to attempt much else. Their modus operandi has been highly effective and none of their opponents has yet located an antidote. If Canada are to have any chance in Saturday’s semi-final they will have to withstand an irresistible force that has crushed almost everything in its path so far.

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

For anyone familiar with the Leicester packs in which he played in the noughties there is also a definite sense of deja vu. For years the Tigers maul was equally unstoppable, with try poachers such as Neil Back at the rear to finish things off. “One of the things I wanted to instil is that an England set piece needs to be dominant and feared,” says Deacon, flatly. “The opposition need to be worried about certain aspects of what we do. That’s the way I’ve been brought up. Often it’s just about doing the fundamentals incredibly well.”

Some may see it as an unlikely marriage: the most macho of alpha male mindsets transplanted to an elite female sporting environment. What Deacon has increasingly found, though, 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 mindset is just like a men’s team,” says the 42-year-old, who won 29 caps for England and made 274 club appearances in a 15-year Leicester career.

“They love those 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 is not an entirely uniform process – “Your approach has to be very different” – he has also learned he can raise his voice and be verbally blunt if standards are in danger of slipping. “When I first came in I believed you couldn’t be a ranter or a raver. But at times they like that approach, as long as it’s not all the time.”

The results, either way, are self-evident. The only question mark is over whether they will be forced, at some stage, to revert to a subtler Plan B only to find their wider attacking game has seized up. Deacon, interestingly, entirely agrees that champion teams cannot be one-trick ponies. “One hundred per cent. If you’ve got a strong set piece that’s your backbone. But you’ve also got 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.”

He is a firm believer, though, that the Red Roses can play in a variety of ways if necessary. “It doesn’t concern me. In training we don’t just endlessly maul and maul. But when we come to the games we’re just doing what is required for that particular job. We’ve got stuff in the locker to play a different style if we need to.”

In addition to passing on specialist lineout tips – “We built it from the bottom right the way back up” – Deacon is also particularly well placed to offer valuable insight on the importance of sportspeople seizing career-defining moments when they come around.

Having been a member of England’s 2011 men’s World Cup squad, he knows from personal experience how it feels to be sat in an Auckland hotel awaiting a big knockout game at Eden Park. In his case things did not pan out as hoped, with England losing 19-12 to the eventual finalists France in the quarter-finals. “It was disappointing because it was an opportunity missed. On another day I think we’d have won. If we’d have done so, we’d have played Wales in the semi-final.”

The Red Roses, consequently, are being repeatedly warned not to allow their focus to drift. “So far the girls have gone incredibly well but as I keep reminding them we need to be constantly looking to get better. We’ve spoken to them about the pressure of the occasion 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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