CLAIRE DONOVAN once failed to get a job because she played rugby union. 'The company I applied to turned me down because they felt I'd be far more committed to my rugby than my work, which was quite unfair.'
On the other hand, it does tell you something about the changing attitude towards what was once regarded as the quintessential chaps' game. Ten years ago, an employer would never have regarded a woman's involvement in rugby as the sort of distraction that might make her a liability. It might have raised an eyebrow, but hardly an objection.Now, though, thousands of women have crossed the touchline to cast off the traditional female role at rugby matches: providing her manly other half's team-mates with evidence of his predatory skills when he is not in the clubhouse demonstrating the liquid capacity of the male bladder. The Rugby Football Union for Women calculate that there are some 10,000 women playing the game in Britain at 270 clubs.
And there is a growing realisation that women's commitment to rugby in terms of training and practice is steadily closing the gap on men's, so the employer's misguided decision to turn down Claire Donovan did at least have the virtue of recognising that the game's rapidly expanding distaff side don't just turn up for rugby matches, fanny around for 80 minutes and spend the rest of the week buffing their nails.
A more important recognition of the advance of women's rugby takes place next Saturday, when the Bread for Life National Cup final becomes the first women's rugby union match in Britain to be televised live, with Sky dispatching 19 cameras and, among others, the former England and Lions scrum-half Dewi Morris to cover the game at the Stoop ground, home of Harlequins. Donovan will be there, too, a second-row forward in the Saracens team who have just won the Premier Division One title with an unbeaten record and hope to confirm their supremacy over their only serious rivals, Wasps, in the final.
Donovan, 26, from Cardiff
- she is also a Wales international - started playing rugby union when she was at Seale Hayne agricultural college in south Devon. 'I used to enjoy showjumping, but knew I'd never be particularly good at it, and was relatively successful at cross-country running, but absolutely hated it. Rugby was the one thing I was quite good at and actually enjoyed doing.'
She says the only aspect of rugby she had difficulty adapting to was the team thing. 'When I was show- jumping I used to go to a quiet corner of the warm-up area and just be nervous on my own. Suddenly I'd got 14 other people to be nervous with before a game, and that was quite hard.'
After Seale Hayne she moved to the South-East and, having finally overcome an ankle injury from horse-
riding, managed a full season with Canterbury in 1996-97. 'I got into the Welsh squad at the end of that season and felt I had to play at a higher standard to get my skill level up. I went to Saracens at the start of this season and graduated to the first team.'
So how hard does she train? 'Every weekday unless we've had a particularly demanding match, in which case I tend to take the Monday off. But we usually go sprint training twice a week and have club training on two other nights.
'Like the men's game, the emphasis has changed. We've lost the slow, fat forwards and everyone has had to work on their fitness and improving their speed. You have to be able to run and compete for 80 minutes, rather than scrum, walk to the next line-out and then potter about for a bit.
'I've lost two stone in the past two seasons (she is six feet and 11 and a half stone) and am fitter than I've ever been. Before, my lungs gave out before anything else; now my lungs are all right but my legs tend to go wobbly after 80 minutes.'
And in the dark recesses of the scrum, where all manner of unspeakable crimes are supposedly committed in the men's game, is the women's just as bad? 'No, I think that is one of the big differences between the two. My boyfriend hadn't really watched rugby at all until he started coming to see me play. He got quite interested in it and wanted to try playing the game himself until he went to watch a men's match. I think he was quite surprised by how much activity there was unrelated to the play.'
Away from the playing field, Donovan says the reaction to her rugby playing is generally positive, reflecting the acceptance of the women's game. 'A couple of people in the office pretend to be absolutely terrified of me and shrink away whenever I come near. And my previous boss was quite averse to me having a black eye when I came to work. One morning he said, 'Oh, nice black-eye day. Well done. Good match was it?' Then he came up to me a little later and said, 'Oh dear, Claire. We're not going to make a habit of this.'
'But most people can get past the women's rugby thing and, although it is relatively new, they take on board that you must have worked bloody hard to represent your country, which is nice. The farmer who looks after my horse down in Wales is a huge rugby fan and when he introduces me says, 'This is Claire, she's an international rugby player.' He's just as pleased as if I were Doddie Weir.'
And the employer who turned Claire Donovan down might be interested to know that she is now a highly successful technical manager for Tesco, driving the best part of 2,000 miles a week and 'dealing with suppliers from Zimbabwe to Inverness'.
'The difference between people who get to the top is how they manage their lifestyles. We've all probably got the same talent, but it's the will to do it, to fit in playing the game around your work. I was quite hurt that someone thought I wouldn't be any good at my job because I'd be too busy training.'
His loss, one suspects, has been the greater.
"Rugby: Claire and the girls Stoop to conquer: Jon Henderson on why thriving women's rugby deserves a TV cup final showcase." Observer [London, England] 12 Apr. 1998