England's rugby-playing women fumbled their chance to keep in step with the men when they lost to Scotland for the first time in their version of the Five Nations Championship. The grand slam belongs north of the border, but when England take on Ireland at Worcester on Sunday, they will have an extra incentive to return to winning ways.
It will be England's last competitive match before they begin their defence of the World Cup in Holland next month, when one of the key players will be Emma Mitchell, 31, the Saracens scrum half, who played in both previous tournaments after taking up the game in 1985.
"I started playing when I was at Loughborough University," she said. "I went there as a discus thrower and hockey player, but wanted to try another team sport. Jim Greenwood, who was a British Lion in the 1950s, was a lecturer there and he got involved with the women's team just as I took the game up. I was very lucky not to learn bad habits early on."
With barely half-a-dozen sides playing in England and Wales during the early 1980s, Mitchell found herself propelled into the England set-up. "That happened in my second year of playing and I won my first cap in 1988. I was one of the players - and there are still a few in the present squad - fortunate to become involved just as the sport really took off," she said.
The Sports Council has identified women's rugby as one of the fastest-growing sports in the country over the past decade. There are more than 200 club sides and as many university and youth teams.
Mitchell was among the founder members of Saracens in 1989 and the club has since won three league titles, with a fourth on the horizon, the National Cup and the National Sevens on four occasions. "It's good at the moment," she said, "because we fit alongside the men in that they're going for the premiership and cup double."
Although the men's team has moved to Watford, Mitchell believes the spirit built up at Southgate, their base before their move to Vicarage Road, has been retained. "Nigel Wray (the club owner) is a millionaire who has come into the sport as a true rugby fan. He is very supportive of us because he sees the future of the club as being very family-orientated. The atmosphere is great.
'We've had coaching sessions from Tony Diprose, the men's captain, Greg Bottomon, who is one of the hookers in the squad, and also from Paul Wallace, the British Isles prop. I think they (the men) still see their home as Bramley Road and they're in and out of there every day for training. If we happen to be playing, they come out on the touchline and watch."
Professionalism may have added glamour to the men's game, but, as amateurs, many of the women will be taking time out from their jobs to play for England in May. National Lottery funding has eased the financial burden - Mitchell estimated that it cost her Pounds 2,000 to play last year. "From my point of view, it has been ten years accumulating debt," she said.
As a commissioning editor, signing up academics to write textbooks for the higher education market, Mitchell is more fortunate than most. Her employer, Addison Wesley Longman, the publisher, is one of the few cash sponsors of the women's game, paying Pounds 10,000 to have its name printed on the sleeves of the England shirts.
"They also give me paid leave to play and extended lunch hours so that I can get to the gym and train," she said. "It does make a huge difference because most people use up all their holiday allowance playing for England." If the England players can retain the World Cup, won in Edinburgh in 1994, it will all seem worth it.
Of the 16 nations competing, New Zealand are the favourites, with England, Australia and the United States all capable of running off with the trophy - although Scotland's recent victory has raised some doubts about the England scrum.
"To be honest, France, Scotland, Spain and even Wales, on their day, could upset the whole cart and beat any one of us," Mitchell said. "The main thing is that the game is continuing to grow. There were only 12 sides in the last World Cup and that was the first time the game featured in the sports pages.
" We've only just started to get the recognition that has led to our present level of support. Whatever happens in Holland, that is definitely very exciting."
Copyright (C) The Times, 1998
Potter, Sarah. "Mitchell thrives on textbook technique; Rugby union." Times [London, England] 2 Apr. 1998