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