Now for that other England-Wales match. Stephen Jones talks to England's worthy captain, Gill Burns
THE SPORTS pitches at Range High School, Formby, on the Southport road out of Liverpool, were frosted white and frozen solid on Thursday. The boot studs of Gill Burns, physical education teacher, clattered as if she was walking on concrete. We were briefly worried, as the camera shutter clicked away, that she would turn as blue as her jersey.
Back in the warmth of the staffroom, circulation returned and she prepared for lessons. This afternoon, at Welford Road, Leicester, Burns leads England against Wales in the inaugural match of the new Home Nations rugby tournament. It is her first season as captain of her country, and her achievement is something of which the school can be immeasurably proud.
But perhaps not even her own pupils realise how proud they should be. The explosion in women's rugby, still gaining converts in masses by the month, is in its way the sporting story of the age. It is difficult to believe that any sport has ever grown so quickly, difficult not to be in awe at the dedication and sacrifice you encounter in players at all the levels, the thirst for learning and then refinement, and all in the face of severe financial deprivation and the other built-in obstacles of mainstream culture and perception.
And yet when you encounter Burns, it all suddenly seems less surprising. She took up rugby in 1987. "I met some hockey players at a tournament who were wearing rugby club sweaters. We talked about rugby and I went with them to Waterloo where they trained. In my first match I was crawling around on the floor and conceding penalties because I didn't know the laws. Afterwards, there was this incredible buzz. I had played many other sports, but I thought to myself, `I love this'."
Rugby was not to know then that it had recruited its own future champion, but the extraordinary athleticism of the new player must have been obvious immediately. Burns represented British Colleges at swimming, athletics, basketball and hockey, and still competes in athletics, ranging from shot put and hammer to sprints. She plays for Waterloo and England in the heavy-duty position of No8. "She is incredibly powerful off the back of the scrum," Emma Mitchell, the England scrum-half, said.
And yet, in the summer break, Burns reverts to the family "trade" of ballet: her mother teaches dance. "After the season is over I dance like mad to be ready for shows in June and July. My mother reckons the reason I can jump so well in the lineout is all the dancing lessons." Even among the ranks of international sportsmen and women, this range of physical capability is astounding.
So is the ferocious commitment of the leading players. Burns trains every day; all the England squad follow precise conditioning programmes, geared to bring them to a peak for today's match and for the forthcoming matches against Scotland and Ireland. And it is not even enough, in the self-help philosophy which has always sustained the women's game, for the international players to inspire merely by on-field example. Burns takes a shining proprietorial pride in the fortunes of the wider game, not least because it is to the developing roots they must return for their sport, week-in, week-out.
There is a quiet messianic quality about her, a strength which has grown since her elevation to captain. She succeeded Karen Almond, the fly-half and the most influential player the game has produced worldwide. Last week, eating up an army assault course before the TV cameras during a team-bonding trip to Arborfield Garrison, or expounding on a passion for her sport in her own staffroom, Burns came across as a perfect spokeswoman for women players everywhere.
"Everyone in the England squad is keen to develop the game all over the country. The self-help thing is huge. We all go to development days in our areas. We introduce people to the game so that they grow and develop and join the game."
She is wary of the sheer enthusiasm, the sheer number of new clubs, wary that a small number of enthusiasts with a vision of a new club could hold back another one nearby: "It's better to have one club with 24 players than two with 12."
The sacrifice, in time and money, is painful. Sponsorships are still in their infancy, avidly welcomed yet small: "It is always a struggle, always. For league matches we might meet at seven on Sunday morning, pile four or five people into each car and go to the other end of the country. My car is four years old and it's done 150,000 miles. I spend all my wages, I haven't saved a penny. It costs us all an awful lot to play the game. When we get together in the squad we always talk about the same thing: winning the lottery, and how we would use the money."
There was real excitement last season when the England v Wales match at Sale made a profit from gate receipts; even more recently when the team were told that their travel expenses would be met for the forthcoming international in France. Rare delight, which deserve to become familiar.
I wondered if everything was to be seen in the context of the health of the overall game. For example, England, the world champions, threaten to dominate the fledgling Home Nations championship. Would she regard an England defeat as the result that makes the championship? "Absolutely not. We will lose sometime, but I don't want to be the England captain when it happens. None of the team want to be playing when it happens." So, quite properly, the results of internationals are seen as the end-all.
And now the next leap, and a profound one. Anne O'Flynn, a versatile youngster playing for Waterloo, recently made the England A squad. The significance of her selection is that she is the first one to reach the higher echelons who began as a rugby player, rather than one who converted later. The advent of New Image rugby for both sexes, and a determined effort by the Rugby Football Union for Women to established youth rugby, means that career players should soon arrive in numbers.
O'Flynn learned the game at mini-rugby, has played without interruption since and now, in her late teens, has a range of skills which even some of the current national team, still essentially in their early years as players, would envy: "She is the first of a new breed of player. It will really help. One of the problems in women's rugby is that no one has the ability to kick long distances. It means that teams can concede penalties and not be punished. But there are young players around now who have grown up with rugby and who can kick much longer."
So the numbers continue to grow, the international scene burgeons. The third World Cup will take place in the Netherlands in 1998. There is even Sports Council funding, a grant of POUNDS 45,000, to be devoted, typically, not to assisting players, or paying for full-time officials to help the swamped ranks of the game's officialdom, but to the development of the sport.
On Thursday, Burns tried to put the global picture into abeyance for once, to concentrate on the final build-up for Wales, on what she would say in the team meetings, musing on a strange Welsh selection in the back row. What were they up to?
Then off to put some more miles on the car. It is a long time since I was so impressed by someone in sport. It is not so much that she is a fine player and athlete, such a selfless ambassador for women's rugby, or, indeed, some kind of valiant amateur throwback to rugby as it once was. It is that Burns came across, in every respect, as a genuine, 24-carat English sporting heroine.
Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1996 **********
"Charging towards the men; Rugby Union." Sunday Times [London, England] 4 Feb. 1996