The first person I see when I turn up at Richmond Football Club in London to try my hand at women's rugby is a girl with her arm in a sling. This does not look good. 'What happened?' I ask. 'Oh, I had an operation on the ligaments.' 'Not a rugby injury then,' I say with relief. 'Oh yes. My shoulder kept falling out, dislocating,' she says brightly, 'so I had this done to pull it all together again.' Yes, rugby union chicks are hardy lasses. But contrary to popular belief, rugby-playing women do not look like Brian Moore with long hair. In fact many of the women's squad at Richmond RFC are pretty and petite, some even with pretty pink gum shields.
But ladylike they are not, at least not out on the pitch. In reflection of this the coach, JD, refers to them as 'guys'. Down here on the park femininity is purely effeminate.'Come on guys,' JD yells as we trot up and down, 'put a bit of pace into it.' This is okay, a bit of running about, I think. But it is only the start. Introducing the ball makes things a lot more complicated. Passing behind, passing over people's heads, passing and skipping round the back of a player to receive the ball before passing again.
'Talk to each other guys!' This doesn't mean have a little chat. This means scream someone's name and then hurl the ball ferociously at their guts.
'Always stay behind the ball, be back from the person who's passing to you,' Sophie the scrum-half tells me as I go haring off potentially handing penalties to the opposition. Still, apart from that, passing and catching goes quite well. I don't drop the ball. This I'm told is called having 'good hands'.
Tackling practice comes next. I'm expected to launch myself into the air at a large inflated column rather like a punchbag. 'Annihilate him at the ankles,' yells JD. I do my best and end up on my face in the mud with a very sore side. 'Nice job,' says JD. I'm flattered.
I always thought rugby players wore gum shields to protect their teeth from flying fists. I find out the hard way that they're worn because, when tackling, you are likely to drive your front teeth hard into your bottom lip. I now have the fat mouth to prove it.
Tackling a person turns out to be much harder than tackling a bag. At 5ft 7in, with a swimmer's broad shoulders, I'm not a small girl, and many of the Richmond ladies are tinier than me. But tackling a woman is strangely painful. The key is to go in with your shoulder, grab them round the thighs and lean on them as they go down, using them to cushion your fall. Women are supposed to be lighter and, well, softer, than men, but in this situation they're not.
Women's rugby is just like men's rugby really. Lots of yelling, swearing, mud, sweat and collisions. Even the changing room has a masculine atmosphere - communal showers, hearty banter, women walking around in unselfconscious states of undress.
Although the female sex sometimes looks with indulgence at male stupidity in running around after a piece of inflated leather, they too can be capable of such single-minded foolishness. When you're out there, you don't worry that it might be a comical and pointless exercise. You just care about getting that ball forward.
But soon it begins to pour with rain. Hot bodies start to steam, and my enthusiasm dampens. The woman with the sling is watching from the touchline. 'Perfect rugby weather,' she says beaming. I'm cold, I'm bruised, I have mud on my legs, in my hair, in my ears, in my mouth and all over my face.
And now I'm going to get soaked as well. Behind me the injured player is relishing every moment, wishing she was out there again. I begin to wonder for her sanity.
Later, in a welcome hot bath, I reflect that there are two things that surprised me about rugby. Firstly, it's so complicated. There are so many things to remember - always get behind the ball, don't get on your knees when picking it up from the ground, and so on - nearly 180 pages of rules. Not a sport for the witless.
The second was that it's actually quite fun. Despite a fat lip and being soaked through, I'd had quite a good time. Everyone accepts that boys will be boys and enjoy mucking about getting scraped and bruised. But what's often overlooked is that the girls used to enjoy a bit of rough and tumble, and some occasionally still do. Oh, and there's a major fringe benefit in taking up women's rugby. After training, the clubhouse is always full of players from the men's team.
Jill Turner played rugby at Richmond Football Club. Telephone: 0181-332 7112.
"Hot Pursuits: Mud, sweat and tears - Jill Turner tackles the tough reality of women's rugby." Guardian [London, England] 11 Oct. 1996