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More experienced, balanced, skilful: England ready for WRWC defence

Rachael Burford celebrates with the Six Nations trophy following England's Grand Slam-clinching win over Ireland. Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images

England will begin the defence of their Women's Rugby World Cup crown on Wednesday under more scrutiny than ever before.

The fallout from the Rugby Football Union's (RFU) decision not to renew the contracts of 15-a-side specialists -- whatever the outcome in Ireland -- caught the nation's attention at a time when its female cricketers and footballers were starring on the global stage.

Players and coaches insist that the issue had been discussed months ago internally, and the public outcry has not been allowed to affect preparation, which on the pitch at least, has been perfect.

"There was nothing that surfaced that hadn't already been dealt with," Red Roses head coach Simon Middleton told ESPN. "It didn't derail us at all."

The merits of the RFU's cyclical approach to the women's game might be up for debate, but what cannot be argued is the impact that being contracted has had on the 15s squad as they target a second successive World Cup title.

England head into the pool stage on an eight-match winning run that stretches back to last November, and includes a Grand Slam, an away victory against New Zealand and two defeats of Canada.

June's international series that culminated in that 29-21 win over the Black Ferns has been pinpointed as vital in building confidence for the campaign in Ireland. The three-match tour, that also included games against Australia and Canada, was planned in order to give the squad exposure to the world's best teams.

That was something Middleton was unable to do with Great Britain ahead of the Rio Olympics last summer, but despite the success, his players have not been allowed to rest on their laurels.

Since returning to England, training camps have been held at Aldershot's army barracks, and the more salubrious surrounds of Teddington, while there was also a late night trip to Wiltshire for search and rescue training designed to build team cohesion.

"We realised that the game's moved on and we needed to move on"

Rachael Burford

"We recognised what that tour would take out of the team and how we'd get that back into them," Middleton said.

"It takes a lot out of players to go through a tour like that, particularly with so much logistical involvement in it -- moving from place to place -- but we planned that we would taper back up to what we hope will be peak performance."

He added: "It's been really well monitored, it's been accurately delivered so we're right where we want to be."

Middleton has been able to retain 15 players from the squad that lifted the trophy in Paris three years ago, but the group has evolved and only six of those will start against Spain on Wednesday.

Faced with a game that has become faster and stronger as competition in both Sevens and 15s has become more intense, England have used the 2014 success as a base from which to improve.

"There's a lot that we took from 2014 into what we're doing now, but we realised that the game's moved on and we needed to move on," Rachael Burford, England's player of the year in 2014, said.

"But we're in a really good place at the moment, we're on the back of some really good success this year but we know that we need to keep on improving on that."

And as England prepare to face Spain in a World Cup opener that they are huge favourites for, Middleton has an ominous warning for their opponents in Ireland. His side, he says, are better now than they were three years ago.

"Probably, with the greatest respect to the 2014 side, we have a bit more skill and fitness levels simply because of the full-time programme we've been able to expose the girls to," he said.

"This group is more of a balanced group in terms of youth and experience. We've got some unbelievably skilful and talented players, but we've also got that additional leadership in this group that only playing in a World Cup brings you.

"These are players who have also been through an Olympic programme, a lot of them, so they know what big tournaments are about, they know what preparing for big tournaments is about.

"So, we're more experienced, certainly, this squad [has] a bit more of a balance of youth and experience, and I just think we're in really good shape."