It seems like yesterday that Emily Scarratt was thrust into the rugby limelight as the leading points scorer and player of the tournament at the 2014 Womens World Cup in France and if England are to retain their title this time around you rather fancy she will again be at the heart off it.
The powerful centre with all the skills and a mighty boot overnight became the face of women’s rugby and has worn the mantle lightly.
Her World Cup efforts were recognised early in 2015 when the Rugby Writers’ Club voted Scarratt their player of the year for 2014 – a considerable accolade considering that both Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Wilkinson brought their stellar careers successfully to a conclusion in 2014.
Scarratt has been busy ever since, initially with the England and Great Britain Sevens squads as Rio loomed while since last summer it has been back to fifteens with a vengeance as England returned to Championship winning ways in the Six Nations for the first time since 2012. That was followed by a successful summer down under when she helped England to wins over USA, Canada and New Zealand in the Super Series.
Her return to the fifteens scene may have coincided with England getting back to winning ways but it was far from straightforward as she explains.
“The transition was a bit rough to start with,” admits Scarratt. “People often talk about the difficulty in moving from fifteens to sevens – the different kind of aerobic fitness and tempo of the game – but I found it more difficult the other way.
“Coming back it suddenly felt a bit claustrophobic out there with the double the number of people on the pitch and much less space and time. To start with it all seemed very congested and enclosed and there seemed less opportunity to make breaks or move the ball. Of course it’s all about adapting but it took a while.”
Since returning from the Super Series in Australia and New Zealand she and the squad have been putting in the hard yards at a series of camps at Farley House – Bath’s headquarters – Aldershot and Bisham Abbey with major fitness sessions every Friday and Monday and a concentration on rugby skills in between. As the reigning champions, you might think the pressure is on but Scarratt doesn’t see it like that.
“Early on we decided to not talk about ‘defending our title’ it doesn’t really mean anything. Instead we talk about winning the World Cup again which is subtly different. We don’t see ourselves as defending champions, we are just challengers along with the other 11 teams.
“I felt much more pressure in 2010 when I was new to the squad. We had beaten New Zealand in 2009, were the host nation and seen by most as favourites. It felt like it was time to ‘deliver’ which ultimately, we didn’t quite do. There is plenty of expectation about this World Cup – we are ranked the No.1 in the world and again have a recent win over New Zealand under our belts – but we are always seen as one of the contenders who ‘must’ perform. So nothing different, really.
“It feels like we have a stronger group this year than 2014. More of the girls have been able to devote themselves full time to the game and so, of course, our skill levels have improved and also our conditioning, not least because there is time to recover properly and deal with injuries better.
“We are confident and competent from 1 to 28 and that’s a good starting point, knowing that if we lose somebody there is another player to step straight in and do exactly the same job.”
Although no sensible team takes any World Cup pool game lightly England’s path to the semi-finals is not quite the minefield it was three years ago when Canada so nearly tripped them up. England found themselves in a dog-fight against an inspired Canucks team and were frankly lucky to escape with a 10-10 draw. Both progressed and ultimately met again in the final but if England had lost the pool game they would have been confined to the play-off places. Small margins.
“We need to nail every match,” adds Scarratt. “The USA have some great athletes and usually raise their game for the World Cup so although we have a good recent win over them there can be no complacency.
“Italy are regular Six Nations opponents and made us work very hard for a 29-15 win at the Stoop last season and Spain are experienced and have a hard core of full-time players from their Sevens squad who have a lot of talented players. We need to do a proper professional job in all three games.”
On the subject of professionalism Scarratt, whether naturally diplomatic or otherwise, refuses to be fazed by the flurry of recent publicity over the switch back from fifteens to sevens contracts after the World Cup which will leave some of the current squad unemployed in a rugby sense.
“We have been aware of the change for a good while, we’ve talked it all through and knew the situation and the decisions we would all be making. We are an experienced group and most of us can remember when there were no contracts at all and it was completely amateur. We know the women’s game is evolving and we are right in the middle of that process.
“The bottom line is that we have got a massive World Cup coming up and are simply focused on that. We intend to give it everything, no excuses, no distractions. And if you look at the bigger picture there is nothing more positive we could do for the women’s game in England at this moment than to win the World Cup. Now would be a very good time to put out best foot forward again.”