WHY can't our men be more like our women? The resounding victory by England in the women's rugby union world championship last Sunday is the latest in a string of female successes that ought to put the English male to shame.
True, the rugby men of England reached the final of their last World Cup in 1991. But they lost. Last summer, while the men were failing by some distance to regain the Ashes from the Australians, the England women cricketers won the World Cup, beating the powerful New Zealand and Australia teams along the way. England also reached the final of the last men's cricket World Cup. But they lost.
As the England men's football team sits out the World Cup in the United States this summer, the England women's team has qualified for the quarter-finals of the European championship without losing a game. In their preliminary pool, the women did not concede a goal in home-and-away matches against Slovenia, Belgium and Spain.
Why are the women's teams so much more successful than the men's? Most women's sport, however successful, attracts only a fraction of the media coverage given to the men's. Realistic sponsorship is therefore rare and, because of lack of funds, the sports are generally administered by well-meaning but lowly-paid amateurs with little idea of the hard commercial realities involved in the arcane trade-offs and compromises underlying most television contracts. The England women's rugby side could find no sponsors in the run-up to the world championship, despite an exemplary record and status as joint-favourites with the United States. It cost each player an estimated Pounds 6,000 to take part in the event and the preceding internationals.
Despite impressive levels of television coverage, and outstanding performances in the previous internationals against Australia in 1992, the England netball team only achieved sponsorship at the last moment and would otherwise have faced another hefty loss on the television production costs, which must be paid by the game's governing body.
The players, too, pay thousands of pounds a year out of their pockets and take unpaid leave to compete, in contrast to most male internationals, who take paid leave and receive generous grants and expenses as a matter of course. Ironically, the hardship that most leading sportswomen face may be one element of their success. Only the most dedicated would even consider an international career and, for those who do, it is a vocation rather than a route to fame and fortune.
The high profile enjoyed by Carling, Guscott, Underwood and Co has set them up for life in a range of glamorous careers, from television presenting to motivational training and sports promotions, despite the lack of direct payment during their amateur days. By contrast, few will remember the names of Jacquie Edwards, Gill Burns or Sue Dorrington, the England rugby heroines, for more than a couple of weeks. For Dorrington, who captained England in the match against Scotland last week, the constant financial pressures act as an extra incentive.
``We've bonded incredibly closely, perhaps because of all the problems, and it makes us appreciate our success more keenly,'' she said. ``For the inaugural world championship, in Cardiff three years ago, four of us re-mortgaged our houses to guarantee the event could take place. You can hardly imagine any of the male stars making those sorts of sacrifices.
``This year, without sponsors, we've had to fight just as hard. We've stood in freezing car parks, selling raffle tickets and Christmas cards to raise the money we needed to compete. After sacrificing so much, that determination and commitment showed in the way we played. The men's international sides in most sports get amazing levels of back-up and expenses. If we'd had a fraction of their advantages, our lives would have been transformed.''
Karen Smithies, captain of the England women's cricket team, takes a similar view. She said: ``The monetary aspect of male team sports is taking the pride away from playing for one's country. We are honoured when we pull on our shirts to play for England. It costs us a lot of money to play top-class women's cricket. Men have things easier and if you have things easier, you are not used to setbacks. When we are up against it, we dig more deeply into our resources of character.''
Smithies has represented England since 1986. ``If you make great sacrifices, you become more resilient,'' she said. ``My parents and I have had to scrimp and save to support my cricketing career. At one stage, we even had to pay for the embroidery of the England badge on our sweaters. The men could learn a lot from the women.''
Ted Copeland, the England women's football manager, admires the attitude of his charges. ``It's terrific,'' he said. ``They're tremendously proud to represent their country and have a collective determination to be winners.''
Dr Anita White, head of development at the Sports Council, said: ``Women in sport generally have to be particularly determined. They have to fight for the right just to compete and this can prepare them mentally for taking on their opponents. Part of the reason England are doing well in team sports is that women's participation internationally, certainly in rugby union and football, is relatively new. These sports are relatively underdeveloped. In England, many women work together with men to improve their standards. This is to be welcomed.
``In women's rugby, with minimal resources, what they have done is fantastic. Many of the players are also able young administrators. Those making the decisions are close to the game.''
After England's defeat in the rugby world championship final in 1991, Dorrington hired a personal trainer and began working out three hours a day to achieve the levels of fitness that spurred on the rest to follow suit. ``I think women as a group are better team members than men,'' she said. ``We communicate better and are more compatible. We're also more perfectionist and take instruction better; so many men are real know-alls. As far as international women's rugby is concerned, we had a giggle after we won the championship and asked ourselves: `Now will we be invited on to A Question Of Sport and Sports Review Of The Year? Will they finally acknowledge us'.
``Our problem is not our playing standard but attracting recognition. The men, even the second-raters, are celebrities. We should take charge of the publicity situation to make sure we don't just slip back into obscurity.''
Copyright (C) The Times, 1994
"If only England's men could be more like the sporting women; Women's Rugby Union." Times [London, England] 3 May 1994