To watch Gill Burns at the barre, a tall, striking figure with the poise only achieved by those who started ballet almost before they could walk, it is hard to believe this is the woman who could prove crucial to the England women's rugby union team's World Cup campaign over the next two weeks.
Burns, 29, an outstanding all-round athlete and a teacher of physical education at Culcheth High School, Warrington, plays No8 for the England side that reached the final of the inaugural World Cup in 1991 and is tipped to go one better in Edinburgh.
Ironically, Burns attributes much of her sporting prowess to her early grounding in ballet even though, at a whisker under 6ft and 131/2st, she is no longer the traditional shape for a ballerina. ``My mother runs dancing schools near Liverpool and I was there from the moment I arrived, in a cot or hanging in the corner in my baby bouncer while she took classes,'' she said. ``I took part in my first charity show as a babe in arms, being serenaded by a man singing `Thank Heaven For Little Girls'. I spent the whole number picking his nose and trying to poke his eyes out, so they should have known then what I'd end up doing!''
By the age of 11, she was already too tall to dance professionally but continued her training in ballet, tap and stage dancing and eventually qualified as a teacher. That discipline stood her in good stead in a variety of sports she represented British colleges in hockey, basketball and athletics, including sprints, heptathlon and all the field events but a light-hearted charity rugby game changed her life.
``It was incredibly exhilarating,'' Burns said. ``I love running with the ball in my hands and suddenly realised I'd found the ideal game for me. From then on, my feet hardly touched the ground. I joined the Liverpool Poly side and scored two tries in my first match, then was invited to a North trial four weeks later to give me experience.''
``I went along, scored again and, to my amazement, found myself in the squad. I'd played so much sport and also watched a lot of rugby so it seemed to come to me pretty easily. At the time, England was short of big, strong, fast natural athletes and, after going on the next national training camp, I was picked for the match against Sweden just a year from the day I started playing. We won 40-0 on my local ground, Waterloo, and I've played every match since then.''
Burns believes that ballet, despite its image of delicate fragility, proved the perfect foundation for rugby and, certainly, during the World Cup training camp at St Albans, the statuesque figure with a long flying plait soared effortlessly in the lineouts, hanging in the air above leaping team-mates to clutch the ball. Her balanced running and deceptive changes of pace and direction also marked her out as an outstanding all-rounder.
For Burns and the rest of the side, the high point of their careers was their aggressive victory against France at Cardiff Arms Park in the semi-final of the first World Cup. In the final, they lost to the United States 19-6 but, after beating the Americans convincingly during the Canada Cup in Toronto last year, the players are confident this will be their year.
All are bristling with fitness after a training schedule that includes around two hours of running, weights and circuit training a day, regular practice games, drills and work with a sports psychologist.
The toughest part of the build-up has been trying to raise the Pounds 1,000 each player needs for kit, travelling and accommodation to compete in the unsponsored World Cup, which Scotland took over in December after Holland, the original hosts, had to pull out after funding problems. Several of the England players are taking out bank loans in order to compete.
Steve Peters, a former student international, now coaches the side and is impressed by the skills and commitment on show. ``It's so refreshing to be working with top-class women after coaching blase men's and colts' sides,'' he said. ``They're so keen to learn. You need a different approach because some tend to take instructions as criticism and are slightly lacking in confidence.''
Burns identified another problem. ``We've also had to learn to be pretty tough about coping with teasing and prejudice,'' he said. ``You get used to these male chauvinist comments, like `It's terrible women playing rugby they'll bang their breasts and damage their child-bearing parts for life'.
``In fact, comparatively, we're just as strong as men as it's women playing against women and we're certainly capable of the same commitment and technical skills as men. When people say it's a men's sport, we say: `No it's not, it's a great game for everyone.'''
Copyright (C) The Times, 1994
"Burns holds centre stage for England; Women's Rugby Union." Times [London, England] 13 Apr. 1994