WHEN Richmond and Wasps run on to the Stoop Memorial Ground for the Vladivar Cup Final at 3pm today, at least half a dozen of the players will have a distinct sense of deja vu. For it was a decade ago, when the women's game was in its infancy, that these teams met in the first final across the road, on the hallowed turf of Twickenham.
On that occasion Wasps, the longest-established women's side in Britain, won in style, but according to the form book they will be hard put to repeat their victory this time. Richmond are packed with highly experienced internationals, including Sue Dorrington, Jenny Chambers and Deirdre Mills, and unbeaten this season.
The Wasps' right wing, Cheryl Stennett, helped England reach the 1994 world championship final, although she was not in the team that defeated the holders, the United States, to lift the trophy. She is bullish about her team's chances this afternoon, despite their underdog status.
'We've been training hard; twice a week together as a squad and then doing individual training programmes that we're given,' she says. 'We quite like being underdogs for the final because it puts the pressure on Richmond. Although they've beaten us narrowly a couple of times this season, both losses were during our bad run of injuries and now we're almost back to full strength.'
The women's game is booming at all levels. From small beginnings in the early Eighties, there are now nearly 140 teams and more than 5,000 senior players competing regularly, plus hundreds of youngsters involved in 'New Image' rugby, a less physical version of the sport.
Stennett, aged 32, a PE teacher at the South Bank International School in west London, is an enthusiastic ambassador for women's rugby and hopes to introduce it to her pupils next season. 'When I first tried rugby as a student at Bedford PE College, the thrill of being able to run with the ball and the challenge of the handling and teamwork got me hooked straight away.
'International standards have risen so much over the past few years that men watching top women's sides playing for the first time are almost always surprised by just how well they play. I think far more people now know that women's rugby exists, and when they see us in action they realise we've got a skill level and are effective decision-makers.'
She believes the key is to be accepted not as surrogate men but as women playing rugby. 'Some of the rubbish that's written, like a recent Daily Express article that said it wasn't a suitable game for women because it was a contact sport, makes me furious. I'm glad to say that the Wasps' prop Jeff Probyn, who got a lot of flak for saying he wouldn't want a girlfriend of his looking like a woman rugby player, has since apologised to us. He claims he said it jokily off the cuff - he hasn't dared to try coaching us yet, though!
'I just want to prove what we can do in the cup final. We'll be going in there with an open mind, but we're quietly confident and know that if all goes well we can certainly win it.'
"Upbeat wing with a sting: Sally Jones assesses the form for the women's rugby union cup final today." Observer [London, England] 9 Apr. 1995