Sunday, 24 April 1994

World cup: This is not proper rugby - and it's time women knew

Mark Reason

CANDI ORSINI is a stuntwoman who makes her living by jumping off high buildings and crashing cars. She will earn nothing for her pains when she plays centre for the United States against England in this afternoon's final of the women's rugby world championship in Edinburgh.

Given her profession, she ought to redefine the term crash-ball centre, but that is not her style. Instead, she is one of the deftest ball-handlers I have seen, and that includes most of the concrete-handed threequarters in this year's Five Nations championship.

Orsini plays like a Frenchman, like Charvet or Cordoniou, and there can hardly be a higher compliment. The French centres ``fixe'' the tackler as they pass. They hold his eyes, carry the ball high, take him out by attacking the inside shoulder, and then they deliver.

That is Orsini's talent. Three times in the semi-final massacre of Wales she made tries through exquisite passes, and every one was given with the tackler about to enter the demolition business.

There can be no doubt that her career as a stuntwoman last seen alongside Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Bros and soon to be continued in Hulk Hogan's Thunder in Paradise is a huge benefit. Kipling's ``If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs'' is one thing, but to keep your head when the odds favour decapitation is quite another.

``I don't know if rugby helps stunt work or if stunt work helps rugby,'' Orsini said. ``I do know that because kicking is not so good in the women's game, it has helped to perfect our passing.

``Our coach Franck Boivert (yes, he's French, and he is also married to Elise Huffer, Orsini's centre companion and another astute passer) wants us to keep the ball alive, to use the whole field. We practise running off the ball, we practise switching from group handling to spreading the line, we practise a lot of running from deep onto the ball.''

And they learn quickly. Not just Orsini, but also the fly-half Jos Bergmann and full-back Jen Crawford, outstanding runners who benefit from her guile.

All three have one thing in common: they are all athletes. Orsini is not just a stuntwoman, but an expert water-skier and an Olympic handball gold medallist. Bergmann has played football for 14 years. Crawford was the first female high school basketball player to score 1,000 points in a season. You may not have to be an athlete to play rugby well, but you do have to be athletic.

Maybe that is part of the reason why the USA are averaging 91 points a game, and why their backs are the only real gold in a tournament of dross. Orsini and Co prove that women can play rugby to a very high level, but at the moment more players than not would struggle to make a school third XV.

England are the only other consistent exceptions to that, and even they have only four or five players of real quality. What they do have is a pack, and a fly-half who will attempt to deny the USA any possession today. That and the belief of Karen Almond, the English fly-half, that the USA are not good under pressure. England's chance of winning lies in the strength of their pack, the direction of their half-backs and the hope that the Americans will bottle it.

What they also have is a dreary attitude to the game. In their semi-final against France they played a joyless, attritional slog that had one gagging on recent memories of their male international counterparts. Women's rugby has only really been going for 10 years and you had hoped that it would still be fun. Happily, that is the way of most teams, but England already wear the tortured earnestness of the professional sportswoman.

The only people entitled to such expressions were in the tiny crowd. The little relief they had was in the sly observation of how the women mirror the national styles of the men. The Scots love to ruck. Ireland have a feisty scrum-half and some quirky manoeuvres; they even attempted the garryowen once or twice, but nobody had the leg power to achieve it. England are the roast beefs. And the French showed a typical mixture of flair and naughty confrontation.

Their lock, Valerie Lenoir, was spoken to three times by the referee in their semi-final. In the end she was shrugging and offering dismissive hand gestures with true Gallic genius. She left the pitch with a rude one-fingered sign at the English. She only fell short by not assaulting the referee in the tunnel.

The real shortfall, though, is in the quality of the women's game. Debbie Francis, a winger who played for England in the last World Cup and who now represents Scotland, said: ``I think there is an appalling lack of publicity and interest in women's rugby.''

It strikes me that there is an extraordinarily large amount of publicity, given the generally low standards of play. The kicking is abysmal. Ball-retention in the tackle is fragile, to say the least. There are more turnovers than in a chain of pastry shops. Barely half of the kicks are caught at the first attempt. Tackling is high, as are most of the scrummaging positions. Passes are shovelled.

Unfortunately, little of the publicity points this out. The tendency is to treat women's rugby as a freak show that is really played to a very high level. Such a pretence is not politically correct, it is downright patronising. It says: ``You are really quite good, considering you're girls.''

Try telling the truth. Most of you are not very good. You're not within light years of the standard that women could reach.

These things wouldn't be worth saying if the women were playing for fun, with a ``sod the rest of you'' attitude, but they are not. They are playing to promote their game, to encourage sponsorship, to increase coverage, perhaps even to persuade the likes of the RFU to assist them financially. Money, however, is usually drawn to quality products and until the standard of play dramatically improves money will be scarce.

That is a bit of a catch-22, because the women could do with such money to finance a recruitment campaign to attract the type of co-ordinated sportswomen that the game so badly needs. For the sake of that endeavour, I hope that the Americans win today, and that they show the elan of their rugby in doing so.

They are worth watching. And the spectacle might just attract a better class of sportswoman to take up the game and raise women's rugby to a level that really would be worth talking about.

Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1994

Source Citation
"This is not proper rugby - and it's time women knew; Womens Rugby Union." Sunday Times [London, England] 24 Apr. 1994

No comments:

Post a Comment