Sunday, 13 May 2001

Lively women's movement; Richmond and Wasps revisit HQ for today's other final

SO HISTORY repeats itself. The last time two senior women's rugby teams appeared at Twickenham was in 1987. On that occasion Wasps were the victors and Richmond lost out.

Now, 14 years down the line, the same two clubs contest the RFUW Rugby World National Cup final at HQ, as a curtain-raiser to the main event, the Zurich Championship final.

But other things have changed. For a start there is now a full-blown Six Nations tournament for women, some of which was shown on television last year; this season's tournament, sadly, went largely unrecognised by broadcasters.

"It was probably because England did not start the tournament too well," said Nicki Jupp, who plays in the centre for Richmond, the cup holders, and England. In fact she was wrong. Sky wanted to be there, but there were organisational problems, which meant among other things that that there was no guaranteed foreign coverage. But as is so often the case with minor sports, when TV does not cover something, the rest of the media tends to overlook it as well.

Yet overall Jupp believes the profile of the women's game has been raised, and Paula George agrees. Shortly before high noon today the England captain will lead Wasps out on to the hallowed turf for another historic step on the long road to serious sporting recognition. Since that first flirtation with Twickenham there have been women's matches at the stadium, but only at student level, and George said: "This is really important for the women's game. It is an indication that we have been accepted into the upper echelons of rugby union. In 1990 I played at Cardiff Arms Park, and I have been waiting for the time when I could do so at Twickenham."

As shop windows go, this one is not so bad. The Rugby Football Union are bracing themselves to cope with a crowd of up to 50,000 for the two matches, and if the weather holds that is not an unrealistic expectation. And since these are two of the top four women's sides in England at present - the other two being Saracens and Clifton - who have been equally matched in the Premiership this season, there is every chance of a feast of quality rugby.

It is certainly what George is expecting from her crew. "We pride ourselves on our handling game and we try to play 15-woman rugby," she claimed. "We have a really exciting back-line. There is Lou Latter on the wing and our fly-half, Shelley Rae, who can place-kick with either foot. In fact in a recent club match this season Shelley bruised the big toe on her right foot and so kicked four successful conversions with her left. There are not many men who could do that."

Jupp countered with a list of Richmond's pluses, including Spain's scrum-half, Roccia Ramirez, and their wing Emily Feltham: "She will be the fastest person on the field, and on the other wing we have Jen Dickson, who is very quick, but also very skilful."

And provided Sky commentator Dewi Morris, the former England (men's) scrum-half, likes what he sees and persuades the viewers that the product is good, then the women's game may be able to square the vicious circle that has left them without serious long-term backing.

"We need backing to develop, but until we get the media coverage we won't attract sponsors," said Jupp. Not that the women's game is totally bereft of backers. England players do not have to fork out for quite as much as they used to, as George explained: "We used to have to buy our England shirt if we wanted to keep it, otherwise we had to hand it back. Now at least we are given a shirt, albeit for the season. But we still have some way to go to catch up with the England men, who are given two shirts per match."

No one would be advised to put their shirt on the result of this match, however. The last time these two sides met, 10 days ago in a Premiership game, Wasps, having trailed 0-8, came back to win 10-8. They lost the first meeting of the season, though, by a try.

"It will be close," said George. "Whoever gets on with it and does not dwell on the fact that television is there and it is Twickenham will have an advantage. I am going to tell my players that it is just another game, on just another pitch, and ignore the fact that it is an historic moment for the senior women's game."

Jupp is looking to the past for omens for today. Not the past of 14 years ago, but rather that of last season. She explained: "Last year we lost to Clifton in the league but went on to beat them in the cup, so I am hoping that history may be repeating itself." Which is where we came in.

The Independent on Sunday (London, England) (May 13, 2001): p12

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