GILL BURNS transports herself around the country in a car precisely 180,000 miles old and has not taken a holiday in almost seven years. If she spends little or none of her precious time worrying about money, it is because she has no money to worry about. "Disposable income? That's a laugh," she says. "You make sacrifices to play this game and the first sacrifice is whatever you might have in your pocket."
Her game is rugby and, without putting too fine a point on it, she is an extraordinarily accomplished performer; a fact she intends to emphasise over the two weeks of the third Women's World Cup, which began in Amsterdam yesterday. England are reigning champions and Burns, a No 8 from the Waterloo club, is captain of her country and the proud owner of 40 international caps, one more than Janis Ross, a flanker with Saracens and her oldest international ally.
She is also the only player to have scored in both previous World Cup finals and when you consider her physical resilience, her longevity at international level and a catalogue of complementary sporting achievements - Burns represented British Universities at hockey, basketball, swimming and athletics - she emerges as an explosive mix of Sean Fitzpatrick and C B Fry. A Corinthian with attitude.
Indeed, the most striking aspect of the 26-strong England squad who begin their campaign against Sweden today is the bewildering breadth of their sporting excellence. Paula George, for example, is a world championship netball player as well as an attacking full-back; Pip Spivey, the Clifton wing, is a nationally ranked pentathlete, tetrathlete and indoor rower; Teresa O'Reilly, a prop forward with Saracens, was a junior discus and javelin champion before moving into martial arts, where she won British and European titles in karate. Think twice before you take liberties with her, Os du Randt.
Thanks largely to a pounds 146,000 grant from the Sports Lottery Fund, this England party will be more thoroughly prepared for the rigours of international competition than any of their predecessors. "We've just spent the most fabulous week at Lilleshall, which gave us quality time together," said Burns. "Back in the early days, we'd have to get someone to pick our shirts up from some motorway service station an hour before kick-off. I could never have imagined a situation in which an England squad could spend 24 hours a day thinking purely about rugby. That's how far we've come.
"That's not to say we're pampered professionals, of course. All the girls in this squad have spent a fortune and shown enormous dedication getting to the top level - Susie Appleby, Janice Byford and Helen Clayton all took career breaks to get themselves ready for this tournament - and in my opinion, there is still a lack of respect from people who presume to judge us without taking the trouble to watch us play.
"But the game in England is growing stronger almost by the day; indeed, it is officially recognised as the fastest-growing women's sport in the country. There are 10,000 girls playing serious competitive rugby, we have a stable of incredibly supportive sponsors and a national development team funded by the Sports Council. All we need to do now is go to Holland and sock it to 'em."
Socking it to a predictably tough and resourceful New Zealand side, who are seeded to meet the holders at the semi-final stage, will be easier said than done. "We played them over there last year and had our backsides kicked," admitted Burns, none too sweetly. "We were naive, we defended poorly and we paid through the teeth. But we're a different side now, both in terms of personnel and attitude, and even though the New Zealand girls have been writing us off in public, I'm confident in our ability to handle whatever they throw at us.
"We've taken big strides off the field and those have been accompanied by improvements on it. We've always trained and trained damned hard, but we weren't necessarily doing the right training. Now we have balanced player-specific programmes, expertly compiled and rigidly adhered to. We're serious about this."
According to Byford, a front-row partner of O'Reilly's at Saracens, many leading male players discovered the seriousness of it all some time ago, especially their counterparts at Saracens: "We get a tremendous amount of moral and practical support from guys like Tony Diprose and Richard Hill," she said. "And when Francois Pienaar first took over as Sarries coach, he encouraged us by saying: 'This club needs silverware and you're the people to win us some.' If he recognises the work we're putting in, we must be doing something right."
Hewett, Chris. "Women's Rugby Union: Burns sets tone as a Corinthian with attitude; The England women's rugby union team begin their World Cup defence today. Chris Hewett met their dedicated captain." Independent [London, England] 2 May 1998