England’s Abbie Ward takes the ‘hardest road’ back to Women’s Six Nations

<span>Abbie Ward (centre) ‘absolutely doesn’t take it for granted’ as she trains with <a class=England before their Women’s Six Nations opener against Italy.Photo: Steve Bardens/The RFU Collection/Getty Images” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/zl3jazrDSaD2UH9lw4LEVw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/841e4902f3845c96a96 6cbcb85776f1d” data-src= “https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/zl3jazrDSaD2UH9lw4LEVw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/841e4902f3845c96a966cbcb 85776f1d”/>

Abbie Ward has played in two Rugby World Cup finals, won several Six Nations titles and was one of the first Red Roses players to get a professional contract, but says she will return to the field for her country after the birth of her daughter One of Hallie’s greatest achievements will be after “the hardest road” back.

Ward, who turns 31 on Wednesday, gave birth last July and returned to play for her club Bristol in November. She scored in her first match back, a 48-5 win over Sale in Premiership Women’s Rugby. After the match she said her next goal would be to make the England squad again, which she achieved when the new head coach, John Mitchell, called a training camp in January. She was subsequently named in the 2024 Women’s Six Nations squad and has been selected to start in England’s opening match against Italy on Sunday.

“I have 61 caps but pulling on an England shirt this time will be one of my greatest rugby achievements,” says Ward. “Yes, I’ve played in World Cup finals, I’ve been captain, I’ve won grand slams, but I think this has been the hardest road to wear an England shirt. It makes you appreciate it even more.

Related: ‘A great achievement’: Marlie Packer wins 100th cap for England

“After injuries and getting your first cap, you appreciate that. But we have to start at ground zero and work [my] A path through a very, very strong side where the rugby is incredible now – I certainly won’t take it for granted.

Ward last played for England in the 2022 Rugby World Cup final, where the team lost 34-31 to New Zealand. She says it took a long time to “correct some of the mistakes” from that outcome, but says her daughter has been a good distraction. “I think having Hallie and that time away gives you perspective,” Ward says.

Hallie has been in the England camp as Ward and the team prepare for the Six Nations. Ward was able to introduce her daughter to her teammates and she was the center of attention. “She absolutely loves it,” Ward says of Hallie. The camp in England is also a good experience for her daughter, says Ward. “I feel very privileged to bring Hallie into an environment filled with so many strong women. It’s huge that she can grow up in that environment and around these girls. They are all incredible role models too. I feel very fortunate to be able to share that experience with Hallie.”

Ward was the first contracted English player to give birth during her career and she was keen to share the journey publicly to raise awareness for current and future players. As part of that, she is releasing a documentary with ITV called “Abbie Ward: A Bump in the Road”, which airs next week, showing her return to playing.

“I always thought it was important to put the journey into words,” says Ward. “I don’t think there has been that kind of awareness from certain sports, or certainly not [not] the men’s sport that this was something that was happening, that players couldn’t have a family and play a professional sport at the same time. Many retired.

“I wanted to put the spotlight on asking tough questions and also answering questions for other players. I went into it, I think, without really knowing what it would look like, as there hasn’t been another player in England who has experienced it. I want to make sure that the next girls who decide to start a family understand what it could look like for them. One thing I also wanted to bring up is that I have been very ambitious in terms of my returns, but I haven’t wanted to put pressure on anyone, not everyone has to do that. I love it with the [Rugby Football Union maternity] The policy is that it is up to the individual.”

Now concentrating on the Six Nations, Ward has re-entered the England camp and found the program has improved since she last played. “There’s a lot of new staff, a lot more staff,” Ward said. “The program as a whole has made a noticeable leap forward in the way it is delivered. The players too, the team and the depth and the talent, that’s really exciting.”

England are favorites and if they lift the trophy it will be for the sixth consecutive year, with France once again their main rival for the title.

The other countries will first look for progress in terms of performance and results. Wales have closed the gap on France and England in recent years but will want to reflect that on the scoreboard after losing 39-14 to France and 59-3 to England in the 2023 Six Nations. Scotland, meanwhile, recorded the first last year consecutive wins in the tournament in 17 years and will look to increase progress.

Ellie Kiltunnel (Harlequins), Abby Dow (Trailfinders), Helena Rowland (Loughborough), Emily Scarratt (Loughborough), Jess Breach (Saracens), Zoe Harrison (Saracens), Lucy Packer (Harlequins), Hannah Botterman (Bristol), Lark Atkin -Davies (Bristol), Kelsey Clifford (Saracens), Zoe Aldcroft (Gloucester-Hartpury), Abbie Ward (Bristol), Sadia Kabeya (Loughborough), Marlie Packer (Saracens), Sarah Beckett (Gloucester-Hartpury).
Replacements: Connie Powell (Harlequins), Mackenzie Carson (Gloucester-Hartpury), Maud Muir (Gloucester-Hartpury), Maddie Feaunati (Exeter), Alex Matthews (Gloucester-Hartpury), Natasha Hunt (Gloucester-Hartpury), Holly Aitchison (Bristol), Megan Jones (Leicester).

Italy took a small step back and finished fifth for the second year in a row. The team is looking to avoid the bottom two spots and add more wins to their total. Finally, new Ireland head coach Scott Bemand said they are aiming for a top three finish. The team took the wooden spoon in 2023 and Bemand’s ambition would require an incredible increase in results.

France will host Ireland on Saturday before Wales take on Scotland and defending champions England travel to Italy. Ward is joined by other returning players in Zoe Harrison and Emily Scarratt for their opener and the captain, Marlie Packer, wins her 100th cap. The camp blocks the favorites tag: “It’s about keeping our eyes on ourselves, our processes and our game plan, and controlling what we can control,” says Ward.

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