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Bennett relishing international challenge

By Ali Donnelly

With a World Cup final loss behind them, unquestionably all eyes will be on England's best young players in the seasons ahead as another four-year cycle begins on the road to the 2014.

It came as no surprise then that England would look for a top coach to take charge of their U20 women's squad and in Amanda Bennett they have gained a former international player and coach as well as one of the most successful club coaches ever in the women's game in the UK.

Bennett, a former Wales international has coached England A and Wales and also oversaw a superb decade at Saracens which saw her side go on a four year unbeaten run in all competitions.

As UK Sport's head of policy she also has a unique insight and ideas into how women's rugby can attract more players to the game, but first and foremost she sees the England U20s job as a great challenge.

"There is a fantastic competition programme for the squad next year - with some games in the early part of the year and then a Nations Cup. It is the first year in a four-year cycle for England rugby - you take a good look at all of your talent. I see that as my job - to help prepare the players for World Cups and playing for England at senior level."

In her senior role at UK Sport she also is well placed to analyse England's efforts at the World Cup - both as hosts and as a team.

"On many levels it was the best Women's World Cup ever held. As well as all of the obvious successes, at the end of the day there was also a small profit which for events like that is always hard. In terms of performance, it was always going to be tough for England because there was only one way they could improve and that was winning. In the end they didn't quite get there but that's sport."

"From England's point of view, the squad that lost tin 2006 was significantly older and there was a raft of retirements after that competition. This squad is really quite young and I think they will be a lot stronger for it in 2014. I thought New Zealand were absolutely outstanding - they knew exactly what to do."

Bennett sees a challenge for the women's game in attracting more players to the sport in the UK extra incentive is there now - with such impetus from the World Cup and the coup of Olympic involvement.

"There is always a challenge with numbers when you are effectively a minority sport. The team sports here that are big are football and netball and after that it gets down to very low percentages. This is a footballing country and the FA have moved on the women's game - the quality of the football has improved and they have managed to create a product. Women's rugby is behind that stage but that World Cup started the process."

"I see huge potential for the RFU to look carefully for talent transfer in the women's game. Why not look at say the best netball potential that hasn't quite made it in that game and say do you want to have a chance to go to the Olympics? We have a programme called Pitch to Podium at UK Sport which takes kids who lose a football contract at a young age and we work with them and test them and see if they could go into other sports. That is something the game could look at."

An area Bennett is very well placed to analyse is the level of coaching in the women's game. Her background in coaching in women's rugby spans from coaching her home country Wales to England A and then of course Saracens who reigned supreme in England for most of her tenure. But women's rugby can't always rely on top coaches at club levels - with an accepted fact that most developing coaches choose to cut their teeth in the male game.

"It is a value system - there is a value that is placed on men's rugby and women's rugby though I think the world Cup may have made a difference there and we may see better coaches coming to the women's game. The World Cup this year has started chipping away at perceptions of the game and once you can attract broadcasters, sponsors etc the value placed on being involved in the womens game shifts,"

Bennet says that attracting good coaches to the club game is key with young playes exposed to better methods and ultimately better able to climb the ladder and improve standards of the game. Depsite her celebrated coaching success though - she admits it was a tough road initially.

" When I retired from Saracens in 2000, Wales invited me to take up a caching position with Wales A and the following year I was approached to take on the full Wales role. On reflection it should never have been offered to me and I should never have accepted, I was nowhere near ready.

"I was deeply flattered - so much so I said yes and it was probably the steepest learning curve I have ever had. It was real challenge. There was no real structure at the time so I stepped down after a couple of years- if I hadn't stepped down they should have sacked me. The results weren't good enough. I didn't have enough experience in developing a performance environment. That was a really tough lesson for me but it helped me to realise what you need to do to improve players and a team."

After the Wales experience Bennett went back to basics - coaching the Saracens second side before the first - instilling a high performance culture throughout the club,

Bennett has same the face of the game change utterly since she took up the sport in 1983 when there were just 12 teams in the country - and when Carol Isherwood was just beginning to set up a structure for the women's game in England. Bennett was part of the first ever GB team - who lost 12-8 to France in 1986 and then part of the first ever clash between Wales and England in 1987 which England won 20-4.

As a coach she offers this advice for those in similar roles.

" I like to think that in every training session we made sure everyone was challenged. Even at elite level in England - there will be variety across the 44. You have to assess that range of ability and plan for it. The three principles for any coach is to have your players learn something, work hard and enjoy it.

"At Sarcens when we had a four year unbeaten run, what I was always pleased about was the team in 2005 was very different to the team in 2009 - so we had succession planning and we maintained success with a different group of players. We made the onus on the rest of the clubs to catch up - and that's what has happened. Richmond are the top team now in the table and everyone must catch up with them."

With England relying on the best young talent to come through the ranks in the coming years to help them finally land the coveted World Cup - there will be high hopes that's Bennett's coaching history can repeat itself.