Friday, 26 February 1999

England's women rugby players have to beg for time off work to play for their country

The Spice Girls have a lot to answer for. Mention Girl Power and the images which spring to mind - certain minds anyway - are Geri's patriotic little number at the Brit Awards and Scary's tongue. Which is distinctly unfair on those 15 genuine Sportys, otherwise known as the England women's rugby team, putting their less famous bodies on the line for their country this weekend for less than the price of a free CD.

Never let it be said that all English international rugby players lead privileged lives. What would the national reaction have been had Martin Johnson prepared for last weekend's Calcutta Cup match by climbing mountains in the Lake District and paying his own way to Twickenham? Or if Mike Catt walked his neighbours' dogs to help with the rent?Their female equivalents have been doing precisely that this week, without a murmur of complaint. Every rolling maul at the Athletic Ground in Richmond, where England face Scotland on Sunday, will involve a role model for the women's game.

Take Teresa Andrews, the lock, winning her first cap at the age of 22. A talented athlete, she is one of the new faces being drafted in with an eye to the 2002 World Cup. Over six feet tall with pace befitting a former schoolgirl hurdler, she has all the physical attributes but her staggering commitment is what really gives the game away.

Her job as a trainee instructor at an outdoor centre near Coniston Water owned by the University of Birmingham necessitates whole days spent literally up hill and down dale, followed by evening training sessions at her club, Waterloo, which is over two hours' drive away. A fresh arrival on the England scene, she has yet to receive a penny in financial help and has to beg time off at weekends.

'I'll have to work every weekend after all this is over, but it's worth it,' she insists.

At least all that yomping must keep her fit?

'It's the wrong sort of fitness; walking up a mountain slowly doesn't give you the sort of power you need.'

The only Amazons in Lakeland used to be those contained within the pages of Arthur Ransome's Swallows And Amazons; these days they are for real.

Andrews's story is instructive all round. The daughter of an English father and Danish mother, she grew up in a completely 'non-sporty family. The only person they could find who might have been was a great aunt who died falling off a mountain.'

Until 1995 she had never played rugby. On Sunday she will share an England dressing-room with players of the stature of Gill Burns and Emma Mitchell, both involved at the inaugural World Cup in 1991.

Burns, 34, has been England captain for five years - 'I feel like I'm nearing the end' - and made her debut back in 1988. Her fairytale moment came in 1994 as a member of the World Cup-winning side which, all too briefly, generated as much nationwide publicity as New Zealand's triumph in Amsterdam last year did on the other side of the globe.

Burns has seen the game come on in leaps and bounds since 1988. 'It's just not recognisable. Watching the videos now . . . well, it isn't laughable but we've come on so much. We were really cross-country runners, athletes and hockey players who had come together and were trying to learn a new game.'

As with the men, the road ahead is paved with fitness targets. Rex Hazeldine has been offering advice from Loughborough and the WRFU's performance director Carol Isherwood confirms that Lottery funding of Pounds 200,000 will help towards, for example, gym fees, kit and physiotherapy. There is still a way to go. The England squad will only gather tomorrow, just 24 hours before playing the Scots, who beat them last year.

This is the first fully fledged women's Five Nations Championship, yet England have not played any com- petitive rugby since their 4411 defeat against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-finals last April.

Isherwood also reports difficulties in persuading employers to release players, even when their costs are all reimbursed.

'We have to change the way that people look at sport in this country,' she adds.

And that includes, as ever, the opposite sex. Are men still sceptical?

'Yeah, in a word,' says the Saracens and England fly-half Susie Appleby, currently walking other people's dogs prior to starting a job with the Metropolitan Police. Her father, Northumberland's representative on the Rugby Football Union committee, turns out to be an enlightened 'Old Fart' and she is working on the rest.

'There's still the old school that say women shouldn't play rugby. I don't know if they'll ever change. All I say to them is: come and watch a game.'

Andrews reports an equally mixed reaction.

'I've got a few rugby-playing male friends who are impressed. But you also get: 'Is it proper tackling, proper pitch, kit as well?' '

A few 'girlie' stories do still surface. The England A lock Linda Uttley was introduced to the game through a chance remark in her local hairdresser's; last year a second-row playing for Eastern Suburbs in Sydney complained of back pains after a game and was found to be pregnant.

Motherhood and rugby are scarcely perfect bedfellows, so three cheers for Maxine Edwards, mother of a six-year-old, who props for England A in Sunday's curtain-raiser. Could childbirth be any more demanding than playing in the front row?

'I said that,' laughs her team-mate Nicky Goodwin, 'but everyone goes: 'It's nothing like it, shut up'.'

But there is a serious side as the women's game approaches the next century, namely how much extra training young women, already juggling busy careers and social lives, can be asked to do for a sport which may leave them richer in body and soul but nowhere else.

'That's a problem for all international sports for women,' says Burns, a PE teacher. 'It's ridiculous, really, but I think most of the girls who play international rugby actually go to work in order to play. There are big sacrifices but, if people aren't prepared to make them, they're not committed enough.'

Posh and her mates would last five seconds, max.

Source Citation
"The poor woman's Five Nations: Forget overpaid pros, England's women rugby players have to beg for time off work to play for their country. Robert Kitson joins the former World Cup champions in preparation for Sunday's first Five Nations encounter with Scotland." Guardian [London, England] 26 Feb. 1999

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