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