Sunday, 7 December 1997

The champions who are the best-kept secret in England

Anyone seeking proof that money and logic are estranged bedfellows in English sport should take a look at women's rugby union. While millions of pounds are routinely pumped into high-profile male events, some of which are little better than lame ducks, one genuine success story remains a ridiculously well-kept secret.

The facts, though, should be screamed from the rooftops. England are the world champions and 8,000 women are turning out regularly for their clubs, always on a Sunday, mind, so as not to clash with men's matches. What's more, the whole operation gets by on a budget of pounds 200,000 - less than the annual salary of many an Allied Dunbar Premiership player.

Amazingly, the Rugby Football Union for Women are quite relaxed about the situation and exude almost a perverse pride at making a little go a long way. However, as England start to build towards their World Cup defence in Amsterdam next May, the current account will feel the strain over the months to come, starting with today's international against Spain in Madrid.

The season continues early next year with games against France, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and by the time the World Cup is over the RFUW will have good reason to thank their latest sponsor, Swiss Life, for underwriting the England team to the tune of pounds 20,000, with a pounds 10,000 bonus to retain the trophy.

Help from the 10 official suppliers to the England team comes in kind as well as cash and is bewilderingly varied - everything from meat to sports bras. But Rosie Golby, formerly the RFUW's secretary and now president, remembers even more straitened times.

"We were self-funding until 1994 and the players paid for everything - shirts, kit, you name it - even at international level. The girls paid to go to the 1994 World Cup and volunteers are still the sport's lifeblood. But, financially, England are women's rugby's most successful team, although the players and management still contribute to their own travel and accommodation.

"Most players take it up at college and carry on playing when they're working. They train at night, often driving hundreds of miles in the process. Obviously, we can never match the men for raw power but women's rugby is fluent and skilful, and great to watch."

England played their first international, against Wales, 10 years ago but did not really come into their own until 1990 when the Great Britain squad split up into the four home countries. Their first defeat was inflicted by the United States in 1991 but their second, a 15-17 setback against France at Northampton, only happened last February.

Several members of the side which beat the US in the 1994 World Cup final in Edinburgh are still playing, including Nicola Ponsford, who is one of only two full-time RFUW employees. A third national development officer has just been appointed and will work from the RFUW's new office in Newbury - the operation is at present based at de Montfort University in Bedford.

The sport may be in its infancy but the Corinthian spirit which drives it on is a throw back to a bygone era when everything was run exceedingly well by enthusiastic and good-humoured amateurs. Women's rugby may be impoverished but it's fun, and it definitely should not be a secret.

Source Citation
Trow, Paul. "Rugby Union: Riches of the poor relations; Paul Trow looks at the champions who are the best-kept secret in England." Independent on Sunday [London, England] 7 Dec. 1997

Sunday, 3 August 1997

England prepare for New Zealand tour

Louise Taylor talks to the England women's rugby union captain as the squad begin a tour of New Zealand

A CHILDHOOD punctuated by plies and demi-plies perfected at the barre of her mother's ballet school has accelerated the adult sporting career of Britain's premier female rugby union player.

Acknowledged as the world's best No 8, Gill Burns is England's captain and highest try-scoring forward. A Formby-based PE teacher, she is also a qualified dancing instructor boasting diplomas in ballet, tap and modern.

"Ballet has improved the rugby because it involves a lot of elevation, enabling me to jump so much further at lineouts," she explained. "It helps with co-ordination and technique too."

The England ensemble Burns is captaining on this month's tour of New Zealand are global champions and she admits being unable to envisage an existence beyond next May's World Cup defence in Holland.

That target now ranks as "my main focus in life" but things were vastly different 10 years ago when the then 23-year-old was persuaded to "give rugby a go". Cynical curiosity turned to addiction and Burns took just 12 months to metamorphose from novice to England debutant.

"My first international was against Sweden at my club, Waterloo and, and in the bar afterwards, a man admitted coming to see 'tits and bums' but, after five minutes, realised he was watching 'a bloody good' game of rugger."

Though strident chauvinism is in recession, she is still aware of discreetly muttered disapproval: "You get some funny comments about women's bodies not being built for contact. There are big impact tackles but no fisticuffs; women haven't got the same macho egos."

Men and women do share similar competitive instincts and Burns is also a UK-ranked shot-putter; although oval-ball commitments dictate that time devoted to athletics is severely curtailed.

Ditto household spending. Playing rugby costs internationals "around Pounds 3,000 a year", determining that England's captain is consequently unable to replace her E-reg Ford Orion which displays 170,000 miles on the clock.

Small wonder that she muses: "It would be great to have a sponsor who would buy us a few train tickets." Instead England are duly grateful to Berlei, providers of sports bras, and Puma, boot suppliers.

A little limelight would be welcome though. As Burns said: "I'll always remember stopping at a service station on the way back from the last World Cup in Edinburgh. The final had been on Grandstand and some men came up and said they'd enjoyed watching. It was nice to be recognised."

What a shame reactionary sponsors and cautious television producers are not disposed to help make it regular.

Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1997

Source Citation
Taylor, Louise. "Burns in step and on song; Rugby Union." Sunday Times [London, England] 3 Aug. 1997

Monday, 20 January 1997

England v Scotland: preview

After seeing a women's rugby match Christian Dymond says England v Scotland will be a cracker.

If my experience is anything to go by, the women's rugby international between England and Scotland next weekend should be a cracker.

England women's team are the world champions and Scotland lost the fixture only 12-8 last year. The match takes place at Blackheath on Sunday and is preceded by a game between the two national women's A sides.

With England men's poor performance against Argentina still relatively fresh in my memory, I travelled to the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne to watch the women of Blaydon Barracudas entertain the might of Wharfedale.

This was by no means the top flight of women's rugby - Blaydon and Wharfedale are in the northern league of the third division - but both sides clearly had ambitions to take the game to each other in an entertaining and open way.

Blaydon Barracudas were also looking to improve their performance after their defeat in Yorkshire a few weeks before, and early evidence suggested enough bite to rattle the visitors. Scrummaging looked pretty solid, there was clean ball from the lineout and after five minutes Elizabeth Simpson, their nippy wing, should have gone over for a try but the final pass was way off target.

Gradually, though, Wharfedale got a grip on the game, their backs attacking with greater brio while their forwards seemed far more mobile around the pitch. By half-time they were leading 10-0. This increased to 20-0 before Blaydon replied with their solitary try. This galvanised them but only briefly, and, as they ran out of steam, so Wharfedale ran them ragged, the final result being 46-5.

It did emerge later that Blaydon had been decimated by sickness and had taken the field with two players who had never before experienced a full game.

Five of the eight Wharfedale tries were scored by one of the centres, which was indicative both of the way the match was played and of the way that women generally approach the game. Points from penal ties were conspicuous by their absence.

The match certainly impressed Tom Sarginson, 17, one of about 30 spectators hugging the touchline. A rugby player who had never watched a women's game, he said: "It was extremely entertaining, much better than I thought it was going to be. A lot of the tackling was excellent and there were some good moves and great handling skills."

The 30 players on the pitch at Blaydon were some of the 12,000 to 15,000 women who now play rugby in the British Isles. In the past few years the game has grown from 12 teams in 1983 to about 270 clubs, some with two or three sides. Rules are the same as for men.

Rugby generally has a higher profile and the growth in the women's game owes a lot to that. There is also the fact that England women won the World Cup in 1994, as I was told by Rosie Golby, the president of the Rugby Foot ball Union for Women, the governing body for the game in England.

A player for 13 years, she turns out as scrum half or centre for Old Leamingtonians in Leamington Spa. "I play because it's a team sport and a contact sport and because I enjoy it," she said. "I can't kick, so, when I do, everyone around me cheers," The side trains twice a week.

Blaydon Barracudas, formerly known as Northern Ladies, also trains twice a week. Tuesday night is for scrummaging, passing and practising set-piece moves; Wednesday evening is primarily for fitness.

Their 25-women squad ranges in age from a 17-year-old who is still at school to a 32-year-old mother of two. The captain and No 8 is Helen Greenwell, 28, one of three policewomen in the side. Many of the others are students. It is Greenwell's second season of rugby, although she had previously been a rower for ten years.

"I've always enjoyed watching the game, but a friend who started playing inspired me to take it up," she said. "Rugby's a good team sport and I think you can enjoy it at whatever level of fitness you are. It also makes for an enjoyable Sunday afternoon." Women's rugby is almost always played on a Sunday, otherwise there might be a clash of pitch and changing facilities with the men.

Three quarters of an hour before the kick-off against Wharfedale, Blaydon Barracudas were out on the field going through leg and arm exercises with Andy Ellis, their physiotherapist; 20 minutes later, having been split up into backs and forwards, they rehearsed moves with Tom Gilmour and Rob Thomson, their coaches.

"Some of the squad are very fit," Ellis said. "Others have come to the game with a basic level of fitness but with a good degree of strength and determination which we hope to build on. Fitness sometimes takes second place to the learning of the game because rugby is new to them."


THE women who play rugby at Blaydon pay a Pounds 20 subscription for the season and a Pounds 1.50 match fee. The social side is strong with evenings out and dances at the extremely impressive new Pounds 1.1 million clubhouse.

In wider terms, women's rugby is organised in national leagues: first and second divisions (Saracens, Richmond, Wasps and Leeds being four of the strongest sides), a third division with four regional leagues (North, Midlands, South East and South West), and fourth and fifth divisions with eight regional leagues apiece.

There is a sixth division which has leagues for new clubs and there are also knock-out cup competitions. A national development officer, Nicola Ponsford, was appointed last September, this is apparently women's rugby's first salaried post.

Last season saw the first home nations' championship involving teams from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. In March, after the 1997 championship, England will participate in the first women's seven-a-side tournament in Hong Kong.

* For more information on women's rugby contact: 01635 278177.

* For more information on Blaydon Barracudas contact: 0191-371 9901.

Blackheath on January 26: England A v Scotland A: kick-off, noon; England v Scotland: kick-off 2pm. Tickets: Pounds 5.

Copyright (C) The Times, 1997

Source Citation
Dymond, Christian. "A great way to spend a Sunday; Sport for All." Times [London, England] 20 Jan. 1997