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