|Venue: Kingsholm, Gloucester Date: Saturday, 9 April Kick-off: 16:45 BST|
|Coverage: Watch on BBC Two; listen on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app.|
When Wales step out against England in Gloucester on Saturday, they may get a glimpse of their future.
Not because the M4 has suddenly started bestowing magical powers, but because Welsh players hope they have taken the first step to reaching England’s dominant heights.
Twelve Wales players were given full-time contracts for the first time in January, with others given semi-professional contracts. Most of England’s squad have been fully professional for three years.
Wales’ contracts seem to have had some effect already – perhaps not physically, but mentally – while England are soaring high at the top of the world rankings.
Ioan Cunningham’s side have come from behind to claim two bonus-point wins – the first time they have won their opening two Women’s Six Nations games since 2015.
That year was also the last time they beat England, scoring two tries in a 13-0 win.
On Saturday, scoring two tries against a Red Roses side who have only conceded one in their first two matches would in itself be a victory.
A win, though, is probably beyond the visitors’ grasp because England are much further down the road on which Wales are just taking their first tentative steps.
Twenty-eight Red Roses players were given full-time contracts in 2019 and, since July of that year, the side have not lost.
In the three years since becoming professional, they have risen to number one in the world rankings, won three Six Nations titles in a row and claimed record victories against World Cup holders New Zealand.
Some are irked by England’s dominance, saying it devalues the Six Nations if you know the result of matches before they have been played.
Others hold the Red Roses up as a shining example, proof that if you invest in women’s sport you get results.
Former Wales international Philippa Tuttiett is so firmly in the second camp that she hopes her side lose on Saturday.
“I don’t want Wales to go away and beat England,” she said on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Rugby Union Weekly.
“Half the team’s professional, they’re in the early stages of it. England are setting the example to all the other unions that long-term genuine investment leads to superstars, World Cup-winning performances.
“That’s what I hope to see this weekend because that will ask more questions and encourage more support for Wales.”
Lack of professionalism ‘not justifiable’
Such is the strength in depth nurtured by England’s contracts and the impressive domestic Premier 15s league, head coach Simon Middleton has moved some players slightly out of position to cram all his talent in.
Abby Dow – normally a wing – will make her second England start at full-back, and the versatile Poppy Cleall moves from number eight to lock.
After starting the same side in Wales’ opening two fixtures, Cunningham has made five changes for Saturday, perhaps accepting that victory is out of reach but a good opportunity to build experience is on offer.
England have scored more than 50 points in each of their past four games against Wales, racking up 232 points in total and conceding 38, but the Welsh revival could narrow the gap this time.
Both sides will want to put on a show. With the tournament being played separately from the men’s championship for the second year in a row, it feels more eyes are on women’s rugby than ever before.
The game in Gloucester is expected to set a new attendance record for a ticketed England home game, with the current mark 13,253.
England scrum-half Natasha Hunt says the tournament has been “eye-opening” for those unfamiliar with women’s rugby as they see amateur players returning to day jobs in the short time between Test matches.
The 33-year-old adds if unions “don’t feel the pressure” to invest more in the women’s game now, “maybe they should”.
Tuttiett believes the increased attention means “more and more people are going to be asking why some teams are professional and some are not”.
She continues: “You can’t give a justifiable answer. For athletes to compete on a level playing field, they should all be given equal opportunities and sadly at the moment the England environment is in sharp contrast.”
Wales’ performances so far show the first shoots of a side entering professionalism. On Saturday they will face Red Roses already in full bloom.
Another England win is expected, but if the Welsh Rugby Union continues to invest it could be a different story in three years’ time.
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