Saturday, 12 January 2002

Tough childhood stood Paula George in good stead for role as England women's rugby captain; Saturday Interview

Sue Mott

A GIRL named George. That was an interesting start in itself. Then she took up rugby. What was she trying to do? Put herself beyond the pale of civilised society, with all that stomping and scrummaging and singing potentially unsuitable songs? A black Welsh girl from a disrupted home and prey to racism, she might have been wise to avoid descent into a pit of female inappropriateness in a gumshield, as the dear old chauvinists would have it. But they don't know Paula George.

She is a barrier breaker, the England women's rugby captain. She had a tough childhood, fought - sometimes literally - through it all to become a Welsh netball international, part of the team who came fourth in the 1991 World Cup. But it didn't quite do. She trained once with the women's rugby squad at the South Glamorgan Institute. That was it. Hooked.

"I didn't know I wanted to be a warrior until I tasted it. It was all a bit of a dare at the time. I thought I'd just do one rugby session and get it over, to prove that netball girls weren't soft. But, to my netball coach's horror, I loved it. It was my first taste of something I really wanted to do. Not the taste of blood, not quite. It just arouses passion in you that's awesome.

"I'm a very passionate person. If I do something I go full at it, 100 per cent. The feeling was of freedom. That's the exact word. How many women's sports do you know where you can actually run with the ball? You can do almost anything to get through the person in front of you. You can use everything God gave you. Speed, size, guile. You never quite got that in netball. Not to diss netball in any sense. It's just that rugby is such a cool sport, a secret the men kept for years and years and years, and now we've cracked it."

And her collarbone, in fact. But that is the only serious injury in a 10-year rugby career, for Wales and England, Richmond and Wasps, which has propelled her, at 33, to the very pinnacle of a burgeoning women's sport. Oh yes, I'm afraid so. When the World Cup in Barcelona is played in May, 16 teams including world champions New Zealand, Australia, Samoa, Spain, Scotland, the United States and Kazakhstan will be playing a brand of rugby that is not for the faint-hearted. Nor the sceptics.

You can say this categorically, having seen the video. Athleticism, commitment, professionalism are making their mark on a sport that was considered almost an affront to nature 20 years ago.

Emily Feltham, wing, screaming past the All Blacks defence to score the winning last- minute try last year in front of a crowd of 40,000 at North Harbour Stadium in Auckland. The first time New Zealand had been beaten in 10 years. George's tackle on Anna Richards, the New Zealand fly-half, which resembled the slamming of a reinforced steel door. Above all, George's face at the final whistle. "The greatest moment of my life," she said. Fists upraised, the roar of ecstasy, the tight white gumshield. It is a picture of belief rewarded.

That belief has been tungsten strong. It had to be. She was born in Wales and grew up in a little Mid-Glamorgan village, Kenfig Hill, near Bridgend. "There was five of us. I was the eldest. I had four sisters. Four white sisters, because I had a different dad to them. As a family we were all quite physical. We were all born a year apart and we used to have a lot of fights and that kind of stuff. But they could never beat me. They were always trying to pin me down. Always rough-housing. I thought that was quite normal.

"I was in a school of 1,600 kids. The only black ones were myself and a young Asian boy. That was quite difficult. I was pretty tough though. I handled it in a variety of ways. Admittedly, at first I used violence but I soon learnt alternatives. I had a very good English teacher who taught me the power of wit. Taught me words were a far more powerful weapon."

One concedes this but can imagine that 1,598 pupils were also aware of her previous left hook. Anyway, she survived and thrived. "I came to like school. I loved it, in fact. I liked the discipline. I worked really hard. Got good grades. I enjoyed achieving. If I didn't get the grade I wanted, I'd hunt the teacher down and say, `Why have I got a B? What have I got to do to get an A?' I think growing up as one of just two black kids in the school makes you know what you want."

Her home life, through all this, had been sub-divided and reconvened in many different ways. Her mother left home and fought a bitter custody battle for her daughters with George's step-father. He won but was subsequently injured in an open-cast mining accident and the girls were sent to a foster home in Caerphilly.

"I remember having my 12th birthday there," she said. "I can't remember my 13th." She desperately wanted to return to the village she knew and eventually did so, but failing relations with her stepfather led her to leaving home at the age of 15. She went to live with a local woman she called simply "Gran".

"She'd always known me. She wanted to look after me and I stayed with her all through my GCSEs and A-levels." It was there George discovered her favourite book, Great Expectations, which has a ring of symbolism about it. "It was the only book Gran ever had in the house, so I just read it over and over."

She has long since been reacquainted with her mother, who remarried and lives in Ireland. She is trying to trace the father she never knew through the American military.

Concurrent with this fairly eventful home and school life was sport. Enter Miss Avril Roper, the games teacher who George has never forgotten who one break time plucked her from the playground where she was always playing cricket or rugby or football with the lads. "I wasn't allowed to play in the school teams, so I just joined in the kickabouts. Miss Roper was the one who dragged me off to netball. I said, `I don't want to play that. It's too soft.' So she just hauled me off to watch an international match at Cardiff, Wales versus Australia I think it was. I said, `This is good. I want to play this.' She said, `You want to play this? You got to play for school first.' So

we did the deal. Eighteen months later I was in the Welsh international set-up."

So George played goal defence in the 1991 netball World Cup. But being her usual robust self, she also played in the women's rugby World Cup that same year for Wales. And completed her finals for her degree in Sports Science at the Cardiff Institute. "So it was a pretty hectic year," she said calmly. "But it was cool. It was the year I decided to give up netball. We'd come fourth in the world. That was as high as we were going to get. I needed a new challenge. I decided rugby was calling me. I had to go for it."

Full tilt, as usual. She moved to London, played for Richmond, despaired the Welsh set-up and caught the eye of England. "Karen Almond, the then England captain, approached me and said would I be interested? What with England? I laughed. They were awesome. I said, `I'm not good enough'."

She wasn't. A tall, skinny athlete, hugely physical but without the physique. She was super-sub throughout the 1994 World Cup in Scotland, but that was not good enough for her. So, shades of schooldays, she nobbled one of the coaches and said: "What do I have to do to be first-choice full-back?" He told her. She did it. "I spent all summer working so hard. I was given a programme of training and stuck to it. To the letter. I came back firing. I put on weight, I was faster, I was stronger and that was the beginning for me."

The end we do not yet know. But the middle is a captaincy, hugely prized by her coaches and team-mates for the ferocity of her commitment and athleticism. "She could have been a track athlete," reckons head coach Geoff Richards, a former English teacher who has coached extensively in Australia. "She is," he said simply, "fantastic."

Under George's leadership England have won two successive Grand Slams and enter the Women's Six Nations in February as furnace-like favourites. (For example, scores from 2001: Wales 0, England 18; England 28, Spain 12; England 39, Scotland 0; England 50, France 6.)

It might be nice if some of us noticed this year. Routinely, women's rugby is ignored media-wise, achieving recognition level even below women's football and cricket, if such a thing were possible. "What we've got to do is just keep going," said George, for whom no object is insurmountable as a matter of principle. "You're not going to stop us playing. And, if we keep winning, by the time I retire we'll be huge stars." She paused. "If I retire at 108."

It would help if the Rugby Football Union would let them play a curtain-raiser international at Twickenham. So far they won't. "It's silly, isn't it?" George said. "To have done it this year to raise awareness about the World Cup coming up in front of a good rugby crowd would have been awesome. Every time I see one of the England men or one of the boys coming out of the tunnel in their country's shirt, I think: we want to do that. We so want to do that. It's going to happen. We're not going away. It might as well happen now."

She is not strident. Just positive. By profession as well as personality. This very morning she had been teaching what she calls "Sports Psyche" to a group of A-level students at Vyners School in Ruislip. They were discussing what she calls "good aggression". The sort invaluable on the field. Not the sort that makes footballers get drunk, violent and vomit-splattered in public.

"Oh, I know," she said. "The one thing that really gets me is football. You don't have to be perfect to play sport at the top level, but you should be aware that people look up to you - especially little ones. I'm sure that, if I was coaching those footballers who behaved like that, they wouldn't be in my team."

This may not be as academic as it sounds. Her ambition, apart from lifting the World Cup this May, is to coach a men's team in the future if she proves good enough. "Because I can. Because it would be fun. Saracens, Wasps, right up through the England network. I wouldn't be happy with any old side."

Don't scoff. This is the woman who when teaching in Southall produced the first all-Asian women's contact rugby team. The mother who wrote in to complain received a letter straight back saying: `You let your child play hockey with a dangerous implement, in my opinion, and a really hard little ball." No more problem.

I wouldn't put anything past her. Especially not the New Zealand fly-half.

Daily Telegraph (London, England) (Jan 12, 2002): p07

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