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