WOMEN rugby players have often looked tough, but mostly it was an illusion. All sweatbands but no sweat, to borrow Colin Meads's dismissive phrase for one England pack. Women can clearly run and pass - quite superbly in the case of the 1998 New Zealand girls - but their game often lacked the satisfying impact and collisions that sets rugby apart from other sports. Rugby, yes, but not as we know it.
Things change, however. The defining feature of the 1998 tournament in Amsterdam was the pace and sheer athleticism of the New Zealand girls, whose "play book" was exactly the same as their senior male All Blacks counterparts. They catapulted the women's game forward about two decades and to contain their virtuosity teams across the world have had to concentrate on defence and aggressive tackling.
So it has been getting very physical under the hot Catalan sun. Tempers have occasionally flared, players have been sent off and the tournament littered with yellow cards. Samoa - making their first appearance on the women's rugby scene - clashed mightily against Scotland and two players were dismissed, but
the biggest collision of all was Australia's clash with New Zealand on Saturday. There is no love lost between these two rugby nations and it showed. The result was probably the most intense, full-on physical confrontation the women's game has seen.
It was not dirty, just brutal. The smaller Aussies were outgunned in every department except courage. Big hits, now obligatory rather than simply desirable, were reeled off. The mother of all tackles came from full-back Bronwyn Laidlaw, who hit Tammi Wilson with such force to save one certain try that you feared for both girls. To their mutual surprise they got up,
gingerly, dusted themselves off and stared with new-found respect and awe at each other. They were still comparing notes about "the tackle" hours after the game.
The dam eventually burst late in the second half and New Zealand ran out 36-3 winners, poor reward for the brave Australians who received no favours from the referee. Their approach and courage was repeated in the next game when hosts Spain, heading for a heavy defeat on known form, took England to the limit.
The Spanish were pumped up by a noisy home crowd and highly motivated after a minute's silence for the father of their lock, Marish Rus, who had died two days earlier. His daughter, after wiping away the tears, had the game of her life, as did her colleagues. Mighty England, the only team thought capable of challenging New Zealand, found themselves in a dogfight and didn't like it. They trailed 5-0 at half-time to a try by Spain wing Isabel Perez and only two tries after the break by Nicky Jupp and wing Nicola Crawford, salvaged a 13-5 win.
England now play Canada, 11-0 winners over the fiesty Scots, in their semi-final tomorrow, while the French are next in the firing line against New Zealand.
"We were very nervous and poor, just as we were against Italy in our first game," admitted England captain Paula George. "Our hope now is that we can settle down and produce our best form. A decent performance must be just around the corner. We've trained well, the draw has been kind to us, there are no excuses really. We just need to make it happen."
The much anticipated New Zealand-England final at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday is still a probability. If so, it will be the last game in charge for Kiwi coach Darryl Suasua, who is seeking a National Provincial Championship contract after seven years with the girls.
"It's been a pleasure and a privilege and there's plenty the women can teach the guys," said Suasua, who coaches the Marist club in Auckland. "Firstly, discipline - generally they are much better. Secondly, attention to detail and work ethic. When I
introduce a new play or strategy,
they listen, absorb and execute.
"If I try the same with a guys' team, there's a think-tank of senior players mulling it all over and picking the bones out of it before it is accepted. And thirdly, fun. They always enjoy their rugby."
Daily Telegraph (London, England) (May 20, 2002): p09