England fans were already likely to arrive at Twickenham Stoop on Sunday in jubilant mood given recent results, but confirmation that two of the squad’s most popular players will win their 50th caps against Canada should guarantee a party atmosphere in south-west London.
Poppy Cleall, who captained the Red Roses in their record 56-15 defeat of the Black Ferns last weekend, is set to lead the side out again alongside Abbie Ward as the forwards reach a half-century of test appearances.
Coming at a time when competition for places in the England squad is arguably more intense than it has ever been, the milestone is testament to the hard work, dedication and ability of both players.
“When I made my debut for England [against Scotland in 2016], I didn't think that I would get to 50 caps,” Cleall told World Rugby.
“It's incredible now to look back at the journey and all the memories and the years that have gone between the first and this one.
“I'm really proud of those achievements and it's just an honour to be able to get my 50th with this squad against Canada.
“It's going to be a great moment and another one ticked off the list, I think. It's just a hugely proud moment.”
Ward added: “Whenever we have a game, whenever there's a selection, my number one goal is, I just really want to be involved in whatever capacity that is.
“My first cap was such an amazing achievement to be involved in, but then every cap since I'm so hungry to be on that team sheet, never take it for granted.
“It's amazing that it's 50, but whether it was my 50th, my 40th, my 30th, I just really want to be on that team sheet and to run out, you know?”
Highs and lows
Ward has had to overcome a number of injury setbacks to win her 50th cap. The first, a torn ACL in 2014, delayed her test debut, which eventually came during a 13-0 Women’s Six Nations defeat to Wales a year later.
The most recent, a hip injury, ensured she spent most of 2020 on the sidelines. “It was about a year it took to get back and it was whilst we were in COVID, so we didn't actually have access to any of the stuff that you normally have,” she said. “So, that definitely was tough.”
Cleall made her test bow a year after Ward, replacing captain Sarah Hunter with 15 minutes of 32-0 Six Nations win against Scotland in which La Toya Mason won her 50th cap.
“I remember sitting there being like, ‘Wow, that's cool – 50 caps, woah!’” Cleall said.
“I think that's just funny that I made my debut as someone was getting their 50th, and what I thought was, cor, I'm never going to do that. But here I am!”
Cleall has gone on to become one of the most feared forwards in world rugby and will be cheered on by a “big cohort” of family on Sunday, including her nan who will be attending her first ever match.
And, as she prepares to mark an occasion she once considered impossible, Cleall admits doing so alongside Ward will make it extra special.
“It’s just a milestone in your career that you should be hugely proud of. To run out 50 times for your country shows there's a lot of hard work and dedication that's gone in,” she said.
“For me, this weekend, getting my 50th with Abbie, I think it makes me appreciate Abbie's journey more as well and the sacrifices and the dedication that she's going through.
“Sometimes you don’t necessarily realise, because there's 30-odd people in a squad, and you might be concentrating too much on your own journey. You don't necessarily give other people you know enough credit and celebrate their successes as much.
“So, this weekend, I think it's nice that we get to celebrate together and really recognise her achievements as well.”
Home away from home
Ward’s husband, Bristol Bears Women head coach Dave, will be at The Stoop on Sunday, which is a ground that holds special significance for both as former Harlequins players.
“I love the Stoop,” Ward said. “I love the fans there; they are so supportive. You know, when I was playing at Quins for four years, I think they're some of the best fans around, and even going back there as a Bristol player, they've been so supportive.
“I love going there, I love playing there and the heritage and the history that that club and that ground and that pitch has.
“I always look back fondly at every game that I've played there, whether it be in quarters or in England shirts. Some of the matches that we've had really stick out in my mind, so it'd be great to run out there for a 50th.
“[It’s] somewhere, which although it is no longer my club home, it does still feel a little bit like home.”
Cleall and Ward will hope to create more happy memories on Sunday and help England maintain their perfect November against Canada.
Back-to-back record wins against the Black Ferns have understandably raised hopes among Red Roses fans, but both players laughed off suggestions they are now favourites to win Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand.
“Dylan Hartley said quite a good quote. He said: ’12 months is a long time in rugby terms’,” Cleall insisted. “Every team’s got stuff to work on and 12 months is a long time to do that.
“But I don’t think we go in as favourites – no way. I think when you’re reigning champions and you’ve got a home World Cup, you can’t not be [favourites].”
England fans can be assured, though, that with one year to go until the RWC 2021 final, Cleall, Ward and their Red Roses team-mates will do everything in their power to depose the hosts as champions.
“For me, to go to New Zealand, take the World Cup off them in their own backyard,” Ward said, “I think there's nothing better than that.”
(Photos: The RFU collection via Getty Images)