Sunday, 27 February 2000

Interview with Nicky Jupp

The tryscoring centre epitomises the levels of excellence now expected in women's international rugby, writes Stephen Jones

A SURVEY of women players conducted by Bread For Life, one of the sponsors, has this to say of Nicky Jupp, who will be in England's centre when they face their own Celtic crunch against Wales at Newbury next Sunday: "At 6ft and a slim size 12, she turns heads with her good looks." The survey reveals a dilemma as Jupp grapples with the probing question: "Who would you most like to snog?" She cannot decide between "Hollywood heartthrobs Brad Pitt and Keanu Reeves".

The survey is presented, er, tongue-in-cheek, though it seems perfectly in order for the women's game to sell itself in any way with which it is comfortable. But Jupp does personify a new image, and not as a reflection in her mirror. When women's rugby first fielded representative sides, they comprised the best and fittest of a polyglot, if determined, bunch. These days, England's squad is an arena for athletic excellence of international class.

Most of the current squad have reached national or international level at a host of sports outside rugby, including track and field athletics, heptathlon, swimming, sailing, netball, basketball, hockey, lacrosse and karate. Rugby reaps the benefits. "Before rugby, I'd trained for years for speed, strength and stamina. You develop a fierce competitive attitude to training, and to sport," Jupp says.

She was an outstanding athlete in her teens, when she was "almost an avid hater" of rugby. She scored 4,500 points in heptathlon at 17 and represented Wales, where her parents lived, at heptathlon, all three of the jump events and hurdles. She was only dragged on to a rugby field through peer pressure in her first year at Birmingham University: "My track coach thought it was great off-season fitness work."

But now, it is athletics that is the sharpener for her new first love: "Gradually, the priority shifted." No wonder. She scored six tries in her first rugby match, but kept scoring in the corner instead of running to the posts to make the conversion a formality. "They shouted the hell at me." Soon after, she scored nine tries in a match, dutifully running round.

Her background, however, did not prepare her for a rugby specific, namely handling the ball, a user-unfriendly implement. Peter Kennedy, England's head coach, recalls the weakness: "When she came from athletics she was held back by her handling. She was always stuck out on the wing and if she caught it, she was fine. It was obvious to me that with so much talent, she had to move inside to get more involved and be nearer to the source of the ball."

She moved to the centre for Richmond, her club, and her hard work paid off. "By the time she played for England in the Hong Kong Sevens last season, she had progressed dramatically," Kennedy said. "She's worked so hard on her skills, her power training, the lot. She's always been a great character, now she is a player of European standing."

Jupp played a significant part in the dramatic win over France last weekend, a 24-18 triumph clinched with a try in the last seconds. She brought off such a clattering tackle on Natalie Amiel, the French centre, that the ball was turned over for an England try on the counter. She also looked a runner of devastating potential.

Unlike some of her teammates, who can forge a semi-professional career with proceeds from Sport England's World Class Performance grants, Jupp works full-time, with Carlsberg-Tetley in Northampton. But her dedication is daily, and almost frightening. "The goals are so high in internationals, especially when you see how far teams such as New Zealand have advanced," she says. "It's hard to get there and harder to stay there. When you are out on the field in an international, it just feels like a job that you have to do. You can enjoy it afterwards, but it ain't nice when you are out on the pitch."

When we spoke just before England's win over Spain in the Five Nations opener, I offhandedly remarked how good it would be for the sport if Spain should win. The look of withering disdain was well deserved. She might "turn heads with her looks" but she looked ready to turn mine to a point from where it was unlikely ever to face the front again.

But serious or not, I found a tremendous sporting exuberance in Nicky Jupp, a kind of joy through a pursuit of excellence. I told her that, in the course of my researches, one of her colleagues described her as a "serious party animal". There was no objection to the label. "I love life, I live it to the full. My diary is always full," she said. "But I take sport very seriously. If I thought it would help my rugby, I'd give up going out."

Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 2000

Source Citation
Jones, Stephen. "Prolific Jupp raises standard for England; Rugby Union." Sunday Times [London, England] 27 Feb. 2000

Sunday, 6 February 2000

Lottery funding has galvanised women's rugby in Britain

Stephen Jones

IT'S A different tournament this year. Spain enter the women's Five Nations championship for the first time, replacing a struggling Ireland team which has withdrawn to concentrate on rebuilding its domestic rugby.

The environment of the tournament is also changing profoundly. England open their campaign against Spain at Banbury today with semi-professionalism conveyed by lottery funding and standards of preparation so emphatically improved that the players are fit to be compared with international athletes in any sport.

They may not, quite, be on the verge of riches, but England's leading players can now obtain funding for equipment, medical care, gymnasium and other training costs and also enough to tide them over if they decide to revert to part-time employment.

The money comes from a national lottery world-class performance grant.
"It gives us so much more freedom," Carol Isherwood, performance director of the Rugby Football Union for Women, said.

"It can be a shattering experience trying to fit in six or seven training sessions per week when you are also working full-time."

But the important thing is not so much the money, as the status the grant imparts. "Because the lottery has recognised them as being comparable with international athletes in other sports, it gives the girls the feeling that they have been accepted - that means more than any monetary value," said Isherwood.

The funding also hands England the key to challenging for the 2002 World Cup and, especially, to catching the brilliant world champions, New Zealand.

While competition in the Five Nations is stern, England cannot advance until they meet New Zealand more regularly, not to mention America, Canada and Australia, the other major teams.
The world-class performance grant will fund England's participation in the Canada Cup in September, when New Zealand, Canada and, it is to be hoped, other top nations will be competing.
Isherwood is trying to arrange for the team to travel to New Zealand and Australia after the tournament.

Today's game may not prove quite as taxing because, even though Spain were the surprise package of the last World Cup in 1998, they lost to England in a recent friendly.
England's new-look team contains neither of the staple figures of the last decade - Gill Burns, the former captain, played for England A against England Emerging Players yesterday and Emma Mitchell, the scrum-half, has a knee injury.

Paula George, at full-back, assumes the captaincy.

This season's Five Nations fixtures:
February 4: Wales 10, France 27 (Swansea); February 6: England v Spain (Banbury); February 18: France v England (Massy); February 19: Spain v Scotland (Murcia); March 5: England v Wales (Newbury); March 5: Scotland v France (Edinburgh); March 18: France v Spain (Dax); March 19: Wales v Scotland (Caerphilly); April 1: Scotland v England (Edinburgh); April 1: Spain v Wales (TBC).

Sunday Times 6 Feb. 2000: p 5

Thursday, 3 February 2000

Paula George becomes Englad captain; Jo Yapp looks ahead

As demands in women's rugby grow, one player realises premier ambition

The international rugby men kick off 2000 with a new tournament, new rules and new captains. Italy join the more familiar adversaries to make it the Six Nations Championship and all will be in action on Saturday. It is a similar tale for the women, who open their revamped Five Nations Championship on Sunday when England, the title-holders, entertain Spain, the newcomers, in Banbury.

Injury has forced the withdrawal of England's leader and, as Paula George, the full back, takes the captain's role from the inspirational Emma Mitchell, a familiar name to rugby followers will step in at scrum half.

Jo Yapp, 20, is the sister of Tony, the Worcester fly half. While she plays for the Worcester women's side in the top flight of the Premier League, he turns out for the men's side who seek promotion to such heights. "It's rugby, rugby, rugby in our house," Jo Yapp said. "My Dad still coaches, Mum loves to watch and my younger sister plays for the second team."

Small wonder, then, that Yapp feels so at home at this smart, friendly club nestled beside the M5. "A lot of women's clubs have trouble with their men's sections because they don't really want to give them proper support," Yapp said. "But it's different at Worcester - they've always backed us totally."

Which means that the men turn up at training sessions, unstinting with their advice. "I get to the club early before our training so that Tony can help me with my kicking and passing," she said. "There's never been any rivalry. I watch him on a Saturday and he watches me on a Sunday. There's no game like rugby for its contact and you're always learning something new. It is special."

It is also a booming sport for women. Bankrolled by National Lottery money, many of the top players are semi-professional and the number of clubs continues to grow. "Just seeing the numbers we get for training shows how popular it is," Yapp said. "We started with ten or 11 turning up, now it's nearer 50. In the England team a lot of the girls are only working two or three days a week, which means the skills and fitness have improved immensely."

Yapp, who has 11 international caps, is a physical education student at Worcester College and there is no disguising that little would get in the way of her sporting ambitions. "Whatever happens, I will definitely carry on with rugby," she said.

The demands are increasing. After the Five Nations comes the European championship, then summer training camps and, yet to be confirmed, an autumn trip across the Atlantic, where Australia, New Zealand and the United States are expected to contest the Canada Cup.

"Those are the big three in women's rugby," Yapp said. "We don't get much opportunity to play them but, with the backing we now have, it does seem that we might be able to go. It would be valuable experience for the next World Cup in May 2002."

So far, because of Mitchell's brilliance at scrum half, international opportunities have been limited for Yapp. Her debut, on home turf at Worcester two years ago, burns especially bright. "I came on for Emma during the match against Ireland," she said. "It was probably more nerve-racking because it was here in front of my family and friends but it also made it extra special."

Ireland, trounced by everyone in recent times, have withdrawn from the Five Nations to concentrate on strengthening their domestic competitions. Spain, a talented side of free spirits, will be intent on an upset on Sunday. "We beat them 41-10 in Barcelona last month in a friendly," Yapp said, "but the score didn't really reflect the game."

Despite her tender years, Yapp is not easily fazed on a rugby pitch. A year in New Zealand did much to sharpen an already competitive nature. "It was an awesome experience because they are all so big and strong," she said. "I think it did my rugby a lot of good." In this Five Nations tournament, she would like to prove that it did.

Copyright (C) The Times, 2000

Source Citation
Potter, Sarah. "Yapp increases the hope of family fortunes; Opinion." Times [London, England] 3 Feb. 2000: