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