‘We have a target on us’: England’s Zoe Aldcroft is ready for semi-final battle

One final push and the Red Roses will have their long-awaited shot at redemption. For those who fell just short in the 2017 tournament the wait has not always been easy. “The World Cup is something I’ve craved for so long now,” says Zoe Aldcroft, the England lock who was named World Rugby’s player of the year 12 months ago. “Everything I’ve done has been working towards this competition.”

Hence the coiled spring vibe around the England camp before their semi-final against Canada on Saturday. Having to stay in the same city centre hotel as their opponents this week has, if anything, intensified their focus. When there is every chance of bumping into your opposite number in the lift it makes it harder still to switch off and think about something other than rugby.

England, though, have long since shrugged aside the agonies of self-doubt. As they set out in search of their 30th successive victory, even that impressive winning streak has ceased to matter much to them. All that counts is completing a job that has become an obsession since they were beaten 41-32 by New Zealand in Belfast five years ago.

Aldcroft is among a dozen English survivors from that squad and the no-nonsense attitude of England’s pack has summed up the Red Roses’ collective mindset. Not that the 25-year-old is ever one to sidestep the hard yards. “She’d run through a brick wall for the team,” says Louis Deacon, the forwards coach. “She’s quiet but incredibly committed to anything she does. She’s an incredible lineout forward and so athletic. No wonder she was world player of the year. I’m glad she’s in our team.”

Her teammates also report a sizeable difference between Aldcroft’s off-field persona – “She’s the most caring and selfless individual and she’d do anything to help you out,” says fellow forward Rosie Galligan – and the seriously tough cookie on it. As Galligan puts it: “When she gets on the pitch she goes from being a smiley, really lovely person to a bit of a demon.”

Even Aldcroft freely acknowledges she can sometimes struggle to control her competitive instincts. “I think it is a red mist,” she says. “It comes over me all of a sudden. I’m like ‘Oh my God, I need to rein this in.’ I just hate losing. As soon as it’s a competition I’m like ‘Right, I’ve got to win.’ I am pretty competitive.”

Much of it stems from a childhood determination to keep up with her brother Jonny – “He was always that little bit better and I wanted to be better than him” – having taken up rugby as a nine-year-old at Scarborough. Aged 12, however, she was no longer able to continue training with the boys and at 16 she headed south to attend Hartpury College near Gloucester. Subsequently, she graduated from the University of Northumbria with a degree in sports and exercise science and earned her first senior cap in 2016.

This will be her 37th Test appearance but, remarkably, she has ended up on the losing side once. That sole blemish, against New Zealand in 2019, was also the last time England lost although Canada, the only amateur side left in the last four, will not be a complete pushover.

Their forward-based, 7-1 bench split is a clear sign of their intentions and in some ways the Red Roses will be gazing at their own mirror image. “We can see the resemblance,” says Aldcroft. “They have a dominant set-piece and their lineout and scrum are a very big strength of theirs. It’s just about us being on top of our game.”

Even without Dua Lipa performing in Auckland this week, it is going to get physical. The other semi-final will involve more of a contrast in styles, with France’s stout defence up against New Zealand’s tasty attack, but England’s head coach, Simon Middleton, reckons the Black Ferns overwhelming preference for expansive rugby over rolling mauls could yet prove an achilles heel. “New Zealand have got a bigger problem because they can only score with their backs but nobody is making a fuss about that,” he says.

In their heart of hearts, nevertheless, the Red Roses would relish a high-profile final against the tournament hosts. “To play the Black Ferns at Eden Park in a World Cup final when they’re the holders … if you can tick that box you’ve pretty much ticked everything as a player and a member of the management staff,” says Middleton.

“If that happens we’ll get an opportunity to realise our ultimate potential. [But] we’ve got to get there and Canada are formidable opponents.”

Aldcroft is reciting from a very similar script – “We’re definitely keeping our feet on the ground, we know it’s going to be a really hard game” – as she prepares to go again alongside fellow lineout specialist Abbie Ward in England’s second row. While she still has a softer side – a knitted Jonny Wilkinson doll still has its regular place in her matchday kitbag while her desert island luxury would be her sponge bag – there is no masking her steely determination to advance. “It’s important we keep to our gameplan, play our structure and don’t get too ahead of ourselves.

“We can feel all the teams really coming after us in the first parts of games. I definitely think we have a bit of a target on us but it’s something we have expected.”

Still burning away inside is that pent-up motivation still fuelling all those involved in 2017. Aldcroft has not come all the way out to New Zealand to watch history repeat itself. “The last World Cup didn’t go to plan. It’s just made me more hungry and made me want this one even more.”