Women’s Six Nations 2023: England reflect on Twickenham ‘pinch-yourself moment’

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Before England had even won the Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam with victory against France on Saturday, there was something special in the Twickenham air.

The beaming faces of women and girls conveyed a collective ‘we did it’ – joy at the Red Roses finally getting what they deserve.

England’s Rugby Football Union took a chance on a first standalone fixture for the women’s side at Twickenham and fans duly delivered.

In total, 58,498 turned up to set a new record for a women’s game, surpassing the attendance of 42,579 for the 2022 World Cup final at New Zealand’s Eden Park.

All week former players had expressed surprise that the game had reached such heights so soon, but none of them were in any doubt of the fact that the quality of the rugby merited such a crowd.

The day was tailored to a new rugby audience, with a funfair set up outside and the Sugababes booked for half-time.

Fans packed the streets as they streamed from the station to the stadium in the sunshine – a sight never before seen in Twickenham for a women’s game.

England captain Marlie Packer celebrated being the main attraction, having played before or after men’s games at Twickenham in the past.

“We weren’t no curtain-raiser, it was all about us,” Packer said.

“The whole day has been a pinch-yourself moment. Playing in front of the crowd in the World Cup final was special, but this was a whole other level.”

After a nervy start, the quality rugby that had been promised arrived.

Abby Dow showed that she can perform on any stage as she steamed down the wing for England’s opening try after early France pressure, prompting a reaction from the crowd that shook Twickenham’s seats.

England stormed to a 33-0 lead, but in the end were grateful for a 38-33 victory after France’s second-half fightback.

That the Red Roses have claimed a fifth Six Nations title in a row is of course significant, especially so after they were on the wrong side of the scoreline in the World Cup final less than six months ago.

But, as it so often has been in the past year, women’s sport was the biggest winner in West London.

The RFU’s aim of selling out Twickenham for the 2025 World Cup final looks more than realistic given the hordes that turned out.

“I want to sell out Twickenham,” Packer said.

“I believe we can do it and I believe we can do it before 2025 and that World Cup final.”

Marlie Packer takes a selfie with a fan and the Women's Six Nations trophy
As they do at every game, England players stayed on the pitch after their victory to meet fans

The England captain was realistic, though.

More one-sided affairs against Scotland and Italy attracted crowds of 10,053 and 12,947 in Newcastle and Northampton respectively.

The RFU started taking the Red Roses on the road in 2018 to grow the fan-base and Packer wants that approach to continue.

“They’ve all now come to Twickenham,” Packer said of the support across the country.

“Some games you’re going to have more interest than other games, the same as the men.

“Let’s get us in stadiums where we’re going to be near enough sold out every time. Yes it would be great to play at Twickenham every time and that will come in time but we need to keep building the fan-base.

“The product is down to us players, the product we put on the pitch that will make people want to come back and watch.

“I think 58,000 people will want to come back and watch after today.”

It can be easy to focus on the challenges facing women’s rugby, with big scorelines between England, France and everyone else often being discussed.

Before Saturday’s victory, England’s smallest win in this year’s tournament was by 48 points.

The contrast between Ireland men’s stunning Grand Slam and the sexism allegations denied by the Irish Rugby Football Union during the women’s tournament is stark too.

But it can be equally easy to forget that the men’s tournament did not run entirely smoothly either.

A financial crisis almost derailed Wales’ match against England and existential questions were raised by Freddie Steward’s red card.

In a season when financial struggles caused two Premiership clubs to fold, the revenue surely brought in by the Red Roses’ Twickenham crowd offers hope for the future.

Many have said women’s rugby can be the sport’s biggest source of growth. The very different crowd filing in on Saturday backed that theory.

The number of those following at home has grown too. More than 10 million had watched the 2023 tournament on television across the first four rounds and organisers expected this to spike for the final day.

England head coach Simon Middleton has been there throughout the accelerated period of growth.

He oversaw the Red Roses’ transition to full-time contracts, helped them to the top of the world rankings and now has six Women’s Six Nation titles, including five Grand Slams, to his name.

Understandably, Middleton said he is “incredibly proud”.

“My first game was two or three thousand fans,” he recalled. “We had to fight for grounds to play at. This has to be the benchmark now.

“You think about some of the first games we were playing to where we are now. It’s pretty exceptional.”


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