England Women are the world’s number one rugby team and unbeaten since 2019 but next up is the biggest test of all as they welcome world champions New Zealand to Sandy Park in Exeter.
The Red Roses have won their last 14 matches including three successive Six Nations titles, with their last defeat coming in San Diego against the Black Ferns, the team right behind them in the world rankings.
That was a repeat of the result of the World Cup final in 2017, arguably the greatest women’s rugby match ever played, and for star flanker Marlie Packer, there is no bigger test than taking on the Kiwis, with the two sides set to meet again a week later at Franklin’s Gardens.
She said: “We don’t get to play the Black Ferns back-to-back very often. I think the last time was in 2013 and we came better off that year, I was part of those games and it was incredible to get the victory how we did.
“To play back-to-back games and see where we are a year out from the World Cup. We played them in the World Cup final and were 12 points up at one point so to lose it how we did, it was soul-destroying.
“In that whole season we lost one game of 19, so that one game didn’t define us. We had a summer tour in New Zealand and beat New Zealand which was sensational so we just need to make sure we don’t worry about stuff that has gone on in the past. We need to turn up on the 31st and put in our performance and the result should look after itself.”
On England’s recent run, their not-so-secret weapon has been the boot, try-scoring and sometimes captaincy of centre Emily Scarratt.
The Loughborough player will be absent in Exeter however, having broken her leg last month, and Packer admits she will take some replacing.
She said: “We’ve played a lot of games without Emily because she has gone off and played sevens and injuries happen. She will support us in the background and help the younger players coming up through and talking to them to make sure that it’s about the squad and what we deliver in those games. It’s a massive miss to us but you have to move on and get on with it.”
For Yeovil-born Packer, the chance to play in Exeter is virtually a home game, with her mum and other members family set to come down and watch the game.
One person who will not be there though, is one-year-old son Oliver, who will be back home with Packer’s wife Tash.
In fact, because of the strict covid regulations around the England bubble, Packer will be away from her closest for nearly a month, a stretch she admits she is nervous about.
She said: “He’s not going to come down to Exeter because of Covid regulations and rules because I won’t be able to see him and cuddle him afterwards.
“He will be watching us on BBC 2, and they get to watch the game better on the TV. I find it hard because we go away for long stints at time. I got a bit teary going away on Monday and I was only going away for four days but it’s because I know it’s coming.
“It’s a 27-day stint in camp if I’m selected. That’s a long period of not being able to see them. I’ve got FaceTime and phone calls but it’s not quite the same. They both support me massively, I’ve got Oliver a little replica set of shirt, socks, and shorts so he’ll be fully kitted up for the game. They will be massively supportive.
“That will be the longest I’ve been and that is going to be a challenge for me. It’s about managing that and making sure I keep regular contact with them, even though it’s quite hard at times.”
Oliver might not be there in the stands to cheer on his mum but considering everything that World Cup-winner Packer has achieved in the game, he should have plenty to cheer about from the sofa.
England Women take on New Zealand in the first of their autumn internationals at Sandy Park, Exeter (Sunday, 31 October, kick-off 2.30pm). Tickets can be purchased at: tickethub.exeterchiefs.co.uk