THE coach of the England women’s team, STUART BARROW, announced a national performance squad of 27 players for 2024, along with an England Knights development squad. He discusses those selections and his first year in the job with RICHARD de la RIVIERE.
RR: How would you assess your first year in the job?
SB: It was a transitional year coming off the back of a World Cup. There had been a lot of intensity in the build-up to the World Cup and then obviously the mid-season international was earlier in the year, in April, so we had to hit the ground running, and I think we’ve developed quite well over the year. I think the competition has developed domestically as well, so there are more young players coming through the pathway, which is exciting for the future.
RR: Is it a problem for you that York v Leeds or St Helens is a higher standard of intensity than England v France or Wales?
SB: It’s challenging and you’re correct to say that. Those intense games are what we want, and we want them on the international stage as well. But more importantly, I want our players to be playing in those intense games more regularly than just the times the top three play each other. The challenge is to keep increasing player production so the teams all become stronger, and we have a more even league, which will raise the intensity of the competition.
RR: One of the first decisions you made was to replace Emily Rudge as captain with Jodie Cunningham. They are both incredible players and leaders. What was behind the decision?
SB: Emily had done an amazing job leading the team through a difficult time with the World Cup being cancelled and having to go again. Her leadership skills were excellent throughout that period. I just felt with a new coach coming in, it was time to have a fresh start with a new captain and a new voice. That was no disrespect to Emily, who I think did a marvellous job. It was just time to go in a new direction. Jodie is a natural leader and she was my obvious choice. She’s thrived in the role, and it’s allowed Emily to play with a bit of weight off her shoulders. Emily’s had a great season both internationally and domestically.
RR: Why do we have a national performance squad? The southern hemisphere countries don’t do this. England in soccer pick a fresh squad for every game.
SB: You’re right to say that and we will be heading towards the model you mention. Initially it was as the clubs were developing in Super League. We had the strength and conditioning, the medical and the coaching set-ups, so it was an idea of bringing the players together more often to give them some expertise and guidance and to help the clubs along the way. The clubs are now well established with great coaching and strength-and-conditioning set-ups, so the female game will go towards the male model where we have less contact time with smaller camps, and we’ll pick squads for those individual camps. You’ll probably see that from the start of 2025.
RR: You selected a squad of 20 players to play Wales in late 2023, of which 14 were hookers, second rowers or centres. Does it worry you that we are so well stocked in some positions but much less so in others?
SB: I disagree with that make up that you’ve made up there. Where they play for their club may not be where they play internationally, but I suppose in any sport, you’ll get peaks and troughs with positions being filled by more players than others. I thought he balance was right for Wales. With the Knights coming through, we have lots of areas covered in all positions.
RR: Is it a problem if you’re playing Australia and you ask, for example, Tara Jones, a hooker, to play in the halves [as she did against Wales] instead of Liv Gale or Caitlin Casey, and you’ve got Caitlin Beevers on the wing where she doesn’t play for Leeds? Players playing out of position happened a fair bit under Craig Richards.
SB: The girls are really adaptable and the challenge for England staff is that we want to put what we think are the best players on the field and then shape that. I don’t necessarily concur where they play for their clubs because they bring the best out of them by playing them in their system, but if I can see qualities that they might be able to play in a different position for England, then that’s something all players are very aware of.
RR: Having watched the New Zealand semi-final from 2022 again a few weeks ago, my conclusion remains that we were really outsized up front. When New Zealand had made 1,000 metres, we had made 639. You still seem to be picking five back-rowers and a hooker as the starting six. Do you not think that needs to change to bridge that size gap with the southern hemisphere sides?
SB: I don’t understand ‘five back-rowers and a hooker’ – in the last international we had Olivia Wood, Zoe Hornby and Vicky Whitfield playing in the front. I think you have to look at the make-up genetically of English players. New Zealand in the male and female games tend to have slightly larger players than we do in England, so we have to find a way of playing against that system, and that’s the great challenge of playing teams from the southern hemisphere. They are athletically developed differently to the way we are over here. As a coach, that excites you because you think how do you overcome that – is it by being quicker and faster or are there other ways to beat that bigger-player system?
RR: Sinead Peach is the reigning Woman of Steel, having also been on the shortlist of six in 2022. In hindsight, was it an error to exclude her from the World Cup?
SB: That wasn’t my choice. That was the previous coach’s choice, and I’m not going to comment on the previous coach’s choice because as a coach, you’ll always be criticised for your squad selection. It’s for each individual to select what they think is best at the time. When I took charge, I wanted Sinead to come into the team, and she’s done very well.
RR: I can understand Craig was picking the team, but were you part of the decision that essentially banished Sinead from the squad for three or four years?
RFL Media Manager: If I can just step in there – as Stu said, he wasn’t the coach at the time. Looking back can be a bit unfair. If we can try and look forward, that would be appreciated.
RR: No problem. One player who now seems to be on the receiving end of the same treatment is Chantelle Crowl, who I thought had a great year in 2023. What’s going on with Chantelle and why hasn’t she figured in any of your squads?
RFL Media Manager: I think again, Richard, we’re trying to look forward and we’re trying to be excited for the future, so if we can try and stick to the players who have been selected. We’ve got some girls coming through DISE and the Knights. If we can stick to that narrative, that would be appreciated.
RR: I think though with all coaching of all clubs, it’s a fair question to ask why someone hasn’t been selected. These are questions football managers and Rugby League coaches get asked every week. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question to ask why someone who’s clearly playing very well at club level isn’t in the international squad.
SB: I’ll just quickly brief on it. I’m not going to individualise it. I pick who I think are the right players for England in my opinion with my staff’s opinion.
RR: OK, so in this instance, is it entirely based on Rugby League ability because the documentary that was done in 2022 [Women of Steel] seemed to imply a lot of other problems between Chantelle and the coach, and there was the issue with her wedding and that training session where she was essentially accused of being a liar. Her side of the story was never heard in that documentary. Is there still a hangover going back to that or is it a decision based entirely based on form?
SB: All squad selections are entirely based on form. I go and watch games every week, I look at stats etc, and squad selection is entirely based on form.
RR: Another player whom I thought was outstanding last season was Savannah Andrade, and I was a little surprised not to see her in the squad. What are your thoughts on Savannah?
SB: Again, squad selection is really tough, and it’s getting tougher all the time as more players come through. We look to the future as well as the present. The door is not shut on anyone. The squads are open for anyone to come in or come out. As staff, we pick on what we think our needs are and what positions we have strengths in and what positions we have weaknesses in. We look at picking the squad on form.
RR: One of the obvious differences between the women’s and the men’s games is that when Saints or Leeds twelve months ago lost a few players, they replaced them with young players like Luci McColm, Phoebe Hook, Lucie Sams, Amy Taylor, Ruby Enright and Caitlin Casey, whereas in the men’s game, a team would just sign players from the NRL or other Super League clubs. Would you agree this is the best way forward because it certainly is for England.
SB: I worked in youth departments in the men’s game, and we were always trying to bring players into the first team from the Academy because not only is it financially beneficial, but it shows the pathway is there.
RR: Did it ever frustrate you if you had a young player who was ready, and their pathway was blocked by a 29-year-old from Australia?
SB: Yes. I’m not going to deny it was a constant challenge. But there’s pressure on a head coach in Super League because they are based on results and sometimes it’s perceived to be easier to bring an established player over than risk playing youngsters. You’ve used Saints as an example, and they’re great at bringing through their young players when the time is right.
RR: If you had a Test match tomorrow, would Fran Goldthorp or Tara Jane Stanley be your fullback?
SB: It’s a great choice to have! That decision will be made in camp with all the staff, depending on form and what’s right for the team. I couldn’t tell you right now. We just have talented players to choose from, which makes my job tough but exciting.