Sunday, 29 November 1998

Interview with Alix Shepherd (Scotland)

ALIX SHEPHERD was busy outlining her rugby background, in between sips of her blackcurrant and lemonade. "Well," she said, "my father played for the North Districts. And my brother plays. And my boyfriend." They play quite well too, as it happens. Alix Shepherd's brother is Rowen Shepherd, one of the sextet who have surpassed the 100 points mark for Scotland. And her boyfriend is Derek Stark, once dubbed the fastest pastry chef in international rugby, who announced his arrival among the upper crust by scoring with his first touch for Scotland, against Ireland at Murrayfield five years ago.

This coming Saturday Alix will be looking to make a similarly dramatic international entrance. She has been chosen to make her debut for the Scottish women's team against Spain in Madrid. The timing of her elevation from the A team is a touch ironic, given the fact that both her boyfriend and her brother are international outcasts at present. Stark has been out of the Scotland picture since the 68-10 slaughter inflicted by the Springboks a year ago. Shepherd - Rowen Shepherd, that is - played at inside centre against the New Zealand Maoris a fortnight ago but has since been supplanted by the kilted Kiwi John Leslie. He has also been overlooked for the full-back place he lost to Derrick Lee midway through last season, Gregor Townsend having been picked to replace the injured London Scot against Portugal at Murrayfield yesterday.

There is irony in that too. Townsend and Rowen Shepherd are business partners. Together with Stark, they own the Three Quarters Sports Cafe, a splendidly appointed eatery-cum-watering hole which can be found in the shadow of Edinburgh castle in the Grassmarket. The Scotland shirt displayed behind the bar is the No 14 jersey Tony Stanger wore the afternoon he grand-slammed England at Murrayfield eight years ago. The No 11 top Alix Shepherd pulls on in Madrid might not be quite so significant but it will be just as precious to her.

"I can't believe it, really," she said, taking her lunchtime break amid the signed framed jerseys in the Three Quarters cafe. "I was in the A team last year. I wasn't involved in the World Cup team that went out to Amsterdam. There were 26 players in the squad so I really didn't see myself getting selected for the Spain match. It was quite a surprise."

It was also a surprise to the Scottish Women's Rugby Union. Shepherd's name was not among the 30 the SWRU nominated for lottery funding at the start of the season. She therefore has to find pounds 500 to cover the cost of the trip, or forfeit her international debut. "I've managed to get pounds 225 of it, from family and friends," she said. "I'll definitely be going. If the worst comes to the worst I'll have to speak to my bank manager and get an extension on my overdraft."

It is another of life's little ironies that Shepherd has been left self- funding her imminent international sporting career. She works as a case officer for the Lottery Sports Fund at the Scottish Sports Council. "There's absolutely no connection with my particular situation and my work," she said. "The governing body puts you forward for funding, not the Sports Council or the Lottery Sports Fund. My name was not put forward because I was not in the squad. It just happens that there's been a change of coach and now I'm in the team. It is quite ironic, though."

It is also no mean achievement that Shepherd has graduated to the international ranks at the age of 25. She does boast a personal sporting pedigree at international level. As a teenage long jumper she competed for the Scottish youth team in the Celtic Games. She did not, however, play rugby until she was almost 22. This is only her fourth season in the sport.

Like Stark, she plays on the left wing - for Murrayfield Wanderers, whose home base is the back-pitch area where the cars park at Murrayfield on international days. "Rowen comes down and watches, along with Derek," the happy Wanderer said. "They're always giving me hints and tips about what to do. Rowen's been down to coach the club a couple of times. He's behind me all the way. He thinks it's great that I've been picked for Scotland."

It is undoubtedly a great achievement to have brother and sister internationals in the same sporting family. It is a rare distinction too. There are the Nevilles, of course - Gary and Phil of England football fame and Tracey of England netball renown. "There are the Chalmers as well," Alix pointed out, lest Scottish rugby's established siblings be overlooked. Craig Chalmers, like Stark, has not figured in the Scottish men's squad this season but Paula Chalmers, a veteran of last season's World Cup campaign in Holland, will be at scrum-half for the women's team in Madrid on Saturday.

Injuries could yet dictate that a Shepherd and a Chalmers line up for Scotland against Spain this Saturday both in Madrid and at Murrayfield. And the Shepherds may yet, in time, complete an international family hat- trick. "Our younger sister, Rhona, has already been in the Scottish A team," Alix said, proudly. "So, you never know, there could be three of us playing for Scotland one day." They are quite a flock, these Caledonian Shepherds.

Source Citation
"Rugby Union: Left field for a Shepherd; Another member of a famous sporting family is winging in for Scotland." Independent on Sunday [London, England] 29 Nov. 1998

Sunday, 1 November 1998

Interview with Emma Mitchell (England)

Stephen Jones meets a scrum-half who hopes England will learn from the best in the world

IT IS good for the soul to realise that, after a good few years watching rugby, there are still things to see which have you rubbing your eyes with a sense of disbelief. Good, that is, unless you were a fellow contender of the New Zealand team in the 1998 Women's World Cup, a splendidly successful event held in Amsterdam in May. The Kiwis were astonishingly brilliant.

And it is typical of Emma Mitchell, who led England in a deeply-courageous defeat against the flying Kiwis in the semi-final, a fine and ferocious encounter, that she spent a short time being profoundly impressed but far longer working out how to catch up. Individually, she was there already. She is one of the world's great players; in the World Cup she was the outstanding scrum-half of the tournament, with a remarkable all-round game in the areas of passing, kicking, running with the ball and needle-sharp tactical nous.

Mitchell is the outstanding personality in the women's game in this country. As a senior England player, as a core figure in the highly-successful Saracens team and splendidly-articulate proponent of her sport, both technically and in terms of promotion, Mitchell has played a key role in the sport's explosion.

She provided a cameo last season when Sky Sports provided excellent live coverage of the Saracens-Wasps match in the final of the Bread for Life Cup. Mere seconds after a tough match had ended in triumph, thanks chiefly to her own excellence, an out-of-breath Mitchell had the microphone stuck under her nose for the flash interview so beloved of producers; she provided such a cool, calm and accurate dissection of the game, regretting aloud that the nerves and tension had perhaps militated against the spectacle, that she put generations of tongue-tied, platitude-spouting sportsmen to shame. "It probably comes from the old days when people used to come up and say that women really shouldn't play rugby. If you got angry, which you wanted to do, it would only have made things worse. So you'd stay calm and ask them if they'd ever watched a match and, if they hadn't, suggest that perhaps they should."

All those doubters have been silenced by sheer numbers of participants, and all those who doubted that the sport could become watchable at its top levels were silenced in Amsterdam, and not only by the elite teams. Now for those damn New Zealanders. My fear for the players in all the home nations was that the emphatic superiority of New Zealand would simply discourage them, just as Bob Beamon's freakish long jump once effectively ended the careers of his peers.

To be discouraged is not in Mitchell's nature. "They were superb, a good distance clear of us and America, and way clear of the others. But they had been effectively preparing as professionals for 18 months. The way we improved from four months of proper preparation showed what can be done. Just having the time together so that, when you run out, you know exactly what everyone is doing was tremendous."

She believes that to narrow the gap, the England players need more time together and must regularly compete against the top echelon, such as New Zealand and Australia. "We have to compete with their preparation time, although we don't necessarily have to mimic the way they play. We must come up with a style to suit the players we have."

A grant from the Sports Council's allocation for world-class performance was a marvellous boost for the England squad before the tournament. Now, the players are biting their nails as they apply for a renewal to take the elite part of the game on further. The Sports Council has backed the application and it is now in the hands of the National Lottery commission. If any member had been in Amsterdam to see how well their cash had been used, they would approve it on the nod. But for the moment, the England squad are again relying on their own resources, "paying to use the gym, paying to use the track, paying to train", said Mitchell.

Her appetite seems undiminished. "The style we are playing is thoroughly enjoyable and there are quite a few new and talented players coming into the squad. I still think I have something to offer."

What she could have said is that the stature of England women's rugby, both in the national team and in the sport countrywide, is in her debt, beholden to an almost unique ability to be world-class as a player and quietly but devastatingly effective as an ambassador. In those fields, not even the Kiwis have anything to teach her.

Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1998 **********

Source Citation
"Mitchell shows touch of class; Interview." Sunday Times [London, England] 1 Nov. 1998