Thursday, 7 October 2004

Isherwood works her wizardry to enhance women's game; Interview.

Sarah Potter

Sarah Potter talks to the ambitious administrator who is the driving force behind the sport

CAROL ISHERWOOD has worked magic on women's rugby, so it seems only proper that she has been mixing it with J. K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter. The meeting was a touch surreal, because it was arranged by the Queen, who hosted a lunch last summer for the nation's most successful females. The author's world-storming fame demanded her presence, but the largely unknown Isherwood has a dazzling list of credits, too.

The 43-year-old started a women's rugby club at Leeds University in 1981 when she was a history student, was a founder member of the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) two years later, captained the first Great Britain and then England teams later that decade, was appointed OBE last year and now, as the union's director of rugby, oversees a burgeoning game from her office at Twickenham stadium.

"It's funny where you find yourself," Isherwood said, with trademark understatement. "The truth is that 20 years ago none of the RFUW founder members had any idea what we were taking on or how the sport was going to boom. We simply wanted a structure so that we could organise a league. Then J. K. Rowling tells me that her daughter wants to play rugby; I must have just stood there looking dazed."

Few, though, would imagine Isherwood lost for words. Talking rugby is a vocation, progress a must. So the Super Fours -a tournament for the 88 elite players in England -continues this weekend, at the Broadstreet club, near Coventry, with a few changes. "It's in its fifth season and has been very successful for the players and the selectors in the lead-up to our Six Nations tournament," Isherwood said. "It's raised standards, so this season we're running it over three consecutive weekends. We're also not assigning coaches to the teams. We want the players to have the extra responsibility, so that they can develop their decision-making and problem-solving."

Isherwood is a Level Three coach -she was the first woman in England to reach that standard -but as the game's leading administrator, her difficulty is how to get the green light to host the next World Cup. The first such tournament, held in Cardiff in 1991, had Isherwood's fingerprints all over it. The 2006 version the fifth for the women -would be a lost opportunity, Isherwood believes, if it were not held in Britain. The International Rugby Board (IRB), though, seems reluctant to agree to the RFUW's costings.

"UK Sport have offered us a grant of Pounds 250,000 to help stage the World Cup," Isherwood said, "and the Rugby Football Union, the men's governing body, with whom we have increasingly strong links, have also agreed to help. I'm not aware of any other country bidding to stage it and we've been in negotiations with the IRB for six months. The finance doesn't seem to be enough for the IRB in terms of what they're willing to put in, but I don't want to cut too many corners in our bid.

It's vital for the women's game that the World Cup be a showcase for everything that's good, which includes hosting the tournament properly."

Quite so, since 34 nations have officially registered an interest in participating. The inaugural event of 1991, when England lost to the United States in the final, included only 12 countries.

"Deborah Griffin, who is still the RFUW's honorary treasurer, pretty much ran it all," Isherwood said. "It came about because a group of us who'd played in the first international, when we were known as Great Britain -said, 'Why don't we have a World Cup?' We didn't have much money, but Cardiff City Council and Sport England were fantastic, as were the hordes of volunteers."

The latest official estimates put the number of women playing regularly at club level at almost 8,000. Up to 20,000 children participate in either primary or secondary schools and last season a record 120 teams in the under-16 age group were registered with the RFUW.

Isherwood is overseeing a budget of Pounds 1 million. The sense of rags to riches is acute, especially given the financial restrictions that surrounded the first international in 1986. "On the morning of the match I had one mate going down the motorway to collect the shirts, which were late from the suppliers, and another at the airport to meet the French," Isherwood said. "They were expecting a bus to collect them, but I hadn't even thought of that. It was like, 'Here's your Tube tickets.' Stuff like that deepens friendships, although I'm glad to say we do things a bit more professionally these days."

The Times (London, England) (Oct 7, 2004): p88

Tuesday, 15 June 2004

I toughed it out with women's rugby team -and lived.

Stefanie Marsh

"CARNAGE" is how it was described. Last weekend, injuries resulting from the women's National Festival of Rugby earned the tournament the sobriquet the Battle of Lichfield.

Ankles were sprained and muscles were ruptured. A hip was dislocated and bones were broken. So numerous were the casualties from the two-day tournament that emergency services classified it as a "major incident".

At one stage ambulance teams had to mobilise helicopters because they had run out of vehicles.

In the words of one Staffordshire ambulance spokesman, Bob Lee: "The girls came from all over the country for the tournament, which was a knockout. And knockout was an appropriate choice of word."

There are now a record 8,000 women and girls playing rugby in 500 teams across Britain, with growth boosted by the England men winning the Rugby World Cup in Sydney.

Inevitably, a journalist had to get to the bottom of this success story. More inevitably still, only the weediest, most cowardly journalist would do. To paraphrase my thoughts as I made my way to meet some of the hardest women Britain: "You? You will be flattened."

And so it was that I found myself face to cauliflower ear with some of the nation's top women rugby players on Thursday evening.

Wasps, the favourites to win the women's Rugby world National Cup next Sunday, had agreed to interrupt their training to show this sports-shy ingenue in oversized shorts the ropes. Their mantra: "Rugby is a contact sport, not a violent sport."

I must admit to not really believing that last bit, having read about Susie Appleby's incredible bravery during a trial match in Loughborough.

In the course of the game, the scrum half with the England women's rugby union received a nasty gash on her face.

She was given two options: either have the stitches across her cheek under anaesthetic and quit the game or have the doctor sew her face together without a painkiller. She went for the "live embroidery" option.

Despite my expectations, this gathering of the country's finest women's team did not resemble the inside of an accident and emergency department.

Talk of the "dangers of the sport" were dismissed with a snort or a wave of the hand -no broken fingers in evidence. Though it is claimed by its practitioners that women's rugby is Britain's fastest-growing sport, coverage of the game is often unfairly confined to hand-wringing pieces about its violence, many of the Wasps complained. A case in point is Norman Wells, the director of Family and Youth Concern, who said this week that "girls just aren't made for playing rugby".

"That kind of attitude is 20 years old and utter rubbish," said Paula George, the former England captain, a statuesque woman of 35 who has broken her collarbone in the course of her career but looks like a swimsuit model.

George, like many of the women who reach this level, is a purist in the mould of Roy Keane, if Keane were a charismatic black woman from Wales without a temper.

She has ruthlessly cut dairy products, red meat and bread from her diet and drinks alcohol -a "poison" -only on special occasions. That translates as four times over the past 12 months.

But George knew that beyond sticking to an impossibly strict diet or winning the semi-finals this Saturday, there lies a bigger challenge ahead today: the prospect of initiating me to the game.

Rosie Williams, the team's managing director and keen rugby player, and Zuri Toppin, the team's volunteer co- ordinator and a former Canadian international, were assigned the task and cheerfully lied to me about my prospects.

Apparently, neither my low pain threshold nor my natural aversion to sport is a barrier to my becoming an international rugby star. "First rule of tackling," said Williams pointing to her bottom, "cheek to arse-cheek. Yours to mine."

I obliged and experienced the dull pang of humiliation associated with not being very good at sport while Williams feigned collapse.

Rugby play-offs, page 40


Women's Rugby was first played seriously in Britain in the late 1970s

The game was initially played mainly by student teams such as Keele University, University College London, Marjons and St Mary's Hospital

The rules of the game are the same for men and women

Shelley Rae, who plays outside half for Wasps and England, is known to fans of the game as "the Female Jonny Wilkinson"

The Women's Rugby Football Union (WRFU) was formed in 1983 and was responsible for rugby in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales

In 1994, the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) was formed in England, with each of the Home Counties overseeing their own counties

The RFUW is affiliated to, but independent of, the RFU. It organises its women's leagues and competitions separately and has to find its own sponsorship

The RFUW has more than 350 clubs, from under-16s to seniors

Top men's clubs, such as Wasps, Saracens, Worcester, Rosslyn Park, London Welsh, Blackheath and Harlequins now have women's teams

The first women's International in Britain took place in April 1986 at Richmond Athletic Ground in London. Great Britain played France but were beaten 14-8

Cardiff hosted the first Women's Rugby World Cup in 1991

Twelve countries participated in the the first Women's Rugby World Cup, a week-long tournament England reached the final but lost to the USA 19-6

England got its revenge at the second World Cup in Scotland in 1994, beating the USA 38-23

The third World Cup in 1998 was the first to be officially recognised by the International Rugby Board

New Zealand defeated England, the defending champions, in the semi-finals of the third World Cup by 44 points to 11 and went on to win the competition

A record 16 nations, including Japan and Samoa, took part in the most recent World Cup in Barcelona in 2002. In the final England lost to New Zealand by 19-9

The Times (London, England) (May 15, 2004): p8

Saturday, 6 March 2004

Dawn of equality at Murrayfield; Rugby Union.

Lewis Stuart

THE growing integration of men's and women's rugby in Scotland took another step forward yesterday when it was announced that Murrayfield is to become the main home ground for both sexes. The women's team will play four matches there this season, all of them immediately after men's matches on the same pitch.

The women hope that the fans who have brought tickets to the men's match will stay on to support them as well - tickets will cover both matches - and they will not only get a decent crowd but may even make a few converts at the same time. It is all part of a series of moves to merge the male and female games, most dramatically shown by the decision taken at the last annual meeting of the Scottish Rugby Union to give the women representation on the general committee.

The match on November 27 is against the United States, losing finalists when the Women's World Cup was held in Edinburgh ten years ago, which follows the men's match against South Africa. It will be the third time that the women have played at the home of Scottish rugby after matches against Sweden and France last season.

The move to end the segregation that saw the women driven out to play their internationals on club grounds, usually 24 hours after the men, was welcomed yesterday by Donna Kennedy, the most capped woman player. "This is absolutely fantastic news," the back-row player, who has been capped 77 times, said.

"Having the opportunity to play at Murrayfield is awesome. It's recognition that we are not just regarded as a bunch of girls playing on a Sunday afternoon but international athletes. The USA match will be a good contest to raise awareness of the women's game and encourage more women to become involved."

The Times (London, England) (Oct 6, 2004): p73.

Sunday, 8 February 2004

In training with Mary Pat Tierney; Your fitness.

Mary Pat Tierney

Mary Pat Tierney is fly-half for the Scotland women's rugby team that plays Wales in the Six Nations championship

For the past two years I have been following a strict training regime to improve my fitness for the national squad. The Scottish Rugby Union has asked the women's team to commit to this training programme for the next two years, until after the next World Cup.

My immediate priority is Saturday's Six Nations match. We meet up on Wednesday and fly down to Bristol before travelling on to Cardiff. On Thursday we will have two training sessions, with a lighter one on Friday, before a team meeting in the evening. This is Scotland's first competitive match of the year and we will spend the time doing a series of rugby drills and playing a number of practice matches.

Combining work and rugby

From Monday to Friday, I work full-time as a solicitor in Edinburgh. Although I start a new job in March, my current employers have been extremely flexible with my training. But, to maintain my fitness, I train every day during my 90 minute lunch break

Monday: after playing on Sunday, I have a recovery session at my local swimming pool

Tuesday: I usually spend 30 minutes on a rowing machine; I row for 90 seconds, rest for a minute, and so on. After work, I head straight for training with Watsonians rugby club between 6.30pm and 8pm. Training incorporates drills such as dynamic stretching, tackling or hitting bags, handling drills, touch rugby or six-on-six matches

Wednesday: probably my hardest session of the week, with an hour of weights. My programme is similar to how weightlifters train -power clenches, press-ups and leg pulls -the theory being that I should be able to replicate the same explosive power in a match

Thursday: at lunchtime I visit a local park and sprint. In the evening I have another session with Watsonians

Friday: depending on how the week has gone, I usually fit in another weights session

Saturday: myself and a few of the team hire a squash court in the morning to perform non-weight-bearing drills and routines, aimed at strengthening our legs and abdominal muscles.

Sunday: normally a club match, although the league is suspended during the Six Nations

Sunday Times (London, England) (Feb 8, 2004): p29.