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UKAF Women’s assistant coach, WO2 Sarah Mitchelson (RLC), is hopeful that the team will be coming home from New Zealand with silverware, having secured their place in Tuesday’s Plate final against Tonga.

UKAF earned themselves the opportunity by overwhelming Vanuatu & Papua New Guinea earlier this week in a play-off, an 80 minutes which also enabled the team to cast aside the frustrations of the two pool stage losses to Australia and Fiji, both of which went the wrong way in the last few minutes.

In both games UKAF had long spells of possession, only to come up against determined defences, and with Australia scoring a couple of long range tries and Fiji winning the second game with the final play of the contest UKAF had nothing to show for their efforts.

“It was incredibly frustrating, especially the first game,” says WO2 Mitchelson. “In the second game once Fiji scored their try we realised we could no longer qualify, that let them back in to win the game, but against Australia we definitely didn’t perform to our full potential.

“We didn’t capitalise on our possession, and we didn’t put points on the board when we should have. And if we had done that there and then it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d scored their tries later on.”

Loses to Australia and Fiji in the pool stages were disappointing for the team.

Images – UKAF Rugby © Neil Kennedy (Left Image) Travis Prior (Right Image)

In normal years the UKAF team would come together in November, well into the British domestic season. With the inaugural International Defence Force Women’s World Cup coming a month earlier, and with the Premier 15s not yet started, time was much more limited for the coaches to prepare their players, with the squad only confirmed three weeks before it left for New Zealand.

Nevertheless, while taking learnings to apply into the next World Cup cycle, WO2 Mitchelson says she cannot fault what the players did in their own time before coming together as a group and then in how they have approached the challenges in front of them.

“We had to rely the girls to be contact ready and game ready before we left, as we couldn’t afford the time to get them ready to do that, and we had a training session on the Thursday before we flew on the Friday,” she says.

“We’d have loved to do more, and for me that’s the biggest takeaway from this, that having done more before we left would have given us a better opportunity.

“The teams that we’ve played out here have had a lot of preparation, which is clearly quite a lot different to ours.

“The girls did everything they could and everyone has come with the right mindframe and right attitude, and the effort’s been there in training. The facilities have been great as well, so it’s just that our performances haven’t been there, unfortunately.”

The second pool match v Fiji was a hugely physical contest.

Images – UKAF Rugby © Travis Prior

The results may not have been what was wanted, but the extra game gave the coaches the chance to ensure that every squad member will come home with at least one UKAF cap, which in turn can benefit the Women’s Inter-Services Championship as players experience rugby at a higher level.

“These games have given us an opportunity to play more players,” says WO2 Mitchelson. “A lot of players who might not have played in the bigger games have now played, everyone has had game time, we’ve got a lot of new caps and gained experience.

“This experience can then only be good for the Inter-Services Championship. Some of the girls are playing at a level they’ve not done before, with great players either side of them. That can make a player grow quite a lot.

“Hopefully rugby players who aren’t sure of what to do with their career are seeing that they can play representative rugby in the Services, because, aside from playing for England, Scotland or Wales, where else would you get this kind of opportunity?

“We’ve had great support from the UKAF team back at home, who did everything they could to get us out here in a small amount of time. All of the support, the messages, the social media, has been absolutely fantastic.

“And now we can hopefully finish on a bit of a high against Tonga on Tuesday.”

The bond in the squad throughout the preparation and tournament has been second to none.

Image – UKAF Rugby © Travis Prior

For WO2 Mitchelson, who was announced as the new Army Women’s Senior Head Coach shortly before the World Cup commenced, there will also be the unique experience of being at a tournament in New Zealand to bring home, memories of which will last for a long time.

“It’s brilliant,” she says, “because everyone loves the sport here. Everyone wants to talk to us. It’s really clear when we’re walking around that we’re a group of rugby players, and we’re getting asked if we’re the England team! That’s very nice for us!

“The best bit is that we’re getting the opportunity to watch the World Cup live, which we’d never would have done beforehand, and it’s all about women’s rugby and growing the game here. Everyone’s really keen because the World Cup’s going on around us and people are coming to watch us because they’re here for the World Cup.”

WO2 Mitchelson is also hoping that Tuesday will provide more memories off the field, too.

“We’ve got the closing ceremony at Eden Park, when hopefully we’ll get some time to spend with the other teams,” she says.

“We only get a little bit of time after games before coming back to our own bases, everyone’s taking lots of stash and I’m sure there will be lots of swapsies!

“We’re looking forward to enjoying ourselves. The Tongans have been brilliant at every game, everyone’s been waving their flags, everyone’s been cheering the other teams, and we had some good time with the Australians in the bar after we played them.”

UKAF play Tonga at 1100hrs, New Zealand time, on Tuesday. Unfortunately there is no live stream for the game, but we will bring a report as soon as we can after the final whistle!

Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks | Header and Featured Image – UKAF Rugby © Travis Prior