WHEN the England women's rugby side run out for their international against Holland at Wasps next Sunday they will be desperate not just to win, but to win in the sort of style that will make Jeff Probyn eat his words.
After a student suffered a neck injury, which did not prove serious, in a recent women's club match the former England prop and several other members of the establishment's macho brigade declared that rugby was too rough a game for women and implied that female players were a pack of harridans with broken noses and cauliflower ears.
The comments provoked an uproar, with howls of outrage or derision from most of Britain's 5,000 women players, particularly those who took part in England's splendid World Cup final victory against the United States in April. Even the unreconstructed chauvinists of the men's game began, in public at least, to duck below the parapet.
Probyn agreed to hold a somewhat tongue-in-cheek coaching session, televised by the BBC's Rugby Special, for the women's squad at Richmond Rugby Club, which boasts the biggest female section in the world. Much of the programme's obligatory joshing was for once at the expense of Probyn himself rather than the women's game.
Watching the powerful Richmond first team, who are unbeaten in the National League this season, on a wet, freezing night, rucking and mauling under floodlights, the sheer commitment and technical skills were striking.
For two of the players, Deirdre Mills at fly-half and the flanker, Jenny Chambers, there was an extra incentive as they will be on England duty next week.
Mills, 31, a stalwart of the game and a fine all-round athlete, became hooked on rugby in the last year of her degree at University College, London. She spent 10 years in the international shadows as the understudy to Karen Almond before gaining her first cap this year in England's World Cup victory over Russia. She then made her name as a place-kicker with a handful of fine conversions and a memorable long-range penalty in the match against Scotland, to the delight of the 5,000-strong crowd.
As one of a string of newcomers, Mills, a softly spoken accountant with the Birmingham Midshires Building Society, is keen to build on her growing reputation. 'It's moments like the big kick against Scotland that stay with you,' she says. 'I remember placing the ball five yards inside the touchline on the wrong side for me (she's a right-footed kicker), looking up and thinking 'Wow, that looks a helluva long way'. Then I stepped up and went boof and it was there. The team went wild because we all knew that the match against Scotland was going to be tough.'
Her kicking prowess is a legacy of childhood. 'I've got three brothers and I was always kicking a ball around with them as a child, so it's second nature really,' she says.
'These days I spend a lot of time practising place-kicking on the two evenings a week that I train with Richmond, then there's all the weights, circuits and treadmill-running at the gym on the other nights, so it's a pretty big commitment.
'The game's great, though. I love the rough and tumble of it and how as fly-half I have a huge influence on adapting our tactics to outwit different opponents. We're well trained and pit players of equal strength against each other, so I don't see why anyone should try to stop us playing. Life itself can be dangerous. In fact, it's generally fatal! I think the Probyn comments were just a cheap publicity stunt and ironically the women's game has benefited from all the coverage they got.'
Jenny Chambers, 32, a former army officer in charge of PTI training, is equally bullish about the future of women's rugby, despite Probyn's jibes. 'Since I started playing six years ago,' she says, 'the game's mushroomed incredibly with over 200 clubs and growing numbers of teenagers and young women taking it up. At the top level, the game is tactically and technically virtually as good as the men's, although there's still a lot of prejudice to overcome. I had to wait until I left the army to play it because it had a big image problem with my superior officers, who nearly fainted when I suggested starting an army side.'
However, by the end of her first practice session Chambers, who now runs a leisure centre near Heathrow, was a rugby addict and began training every day. At 5ft 9in and 10st 10lb, Chambers admits she is light for a flanker, but with her pace and abundant natural talent, she has improved rapidly. She gained her first cap last year and was on the bench for the World Cup final, coming on early in the match to play as a replacement lock for an injured team-mate.
'It sounds arrogant to say it,' she says, 'but at the final whistle, I just felt utter relief. I knew we ought to win the match after all the work we'd done on skills and tactics over the previous three years, but it was wonderful to fulfil that dream. After that performance and all the media coverage it got, we suddenly found we were being taken a lot more seriously and even the Probyn comments have worked in our favour.'
Chambers, who is a qualified coach, was unimpressed by the session Probyn took, believing it was designed to humiliate rather than instruct.
'His first drill was chip-kicking a tackle bag, tackling the bag then recovering the ball from beyond it. It was a bit chaotic, but any sensible coach would have started a session with basic warm-up skills and I think the only reason he chose such a complicated manoeuvre was to make us look inept.
'He also taught our forwards how to pull the opposing prop's elbow down to prevent her seeing the ball as it's put into the scrum. He wouldn't admit it, but that's a dangerous manoeuvre that could cause the scrum to collapse. It's also bending the laws of rugby and if I'd been there I'd have protested.
'Sadly his attitude is typical of a lot of the top male players, although there are honourable exceptions like Rory Underwood and Brian Moore who's coached us and is incredibly supportive. We don't need anyone's approval to take part, though. We'll be going out against Holland to play our own brand of fluent, attractive rugby. I'm convinced we'll win and win well.'
"Rugby Union: Sisters who pack a heavy punch - Sally Jones finds England's women on a forward roll as they prepare to meet Holland." Observer [London, England] 11 Dec. 1994