In three hours they would be striding out on to the hallowed ground of Cardiff Arms Park, the ancestral home of Welsh rugby where Gareth Edwards and J.P.R. Williams once reigned supreme. But now the track-suited forwards were sitting, lounging and crouching on and around the double bed of room 213 at the city's Angel Hotel, listening to coach Jonathan Moore telling them what to expect from the much-vaunted English pack.
``When they're in our 22 they'll attack off the back row and look to work a switch with the centres, so watch the blind side,'' he said, in a jargon which was instantly understood by an audience of thoughtfully nodding heads. ``If the back row start running it's your job, Bess, to get out there tackling...''
From the corner, Belinda Davies, a 29-year-old sales manager from Llandrindod Wells, felt moved to offer her view of her opposing prop forward, Sandy Ewing: ``She's happy when she's allowed to look good running around the park but give her a bad time in the scrum and she's knackered.''
The tension eased. This was fighting talk and just the kind of thing 25-year-old Bess Evans, hooker, vice-captain and chairman of the Welsh Women's Rugby Football Union, needed to hear to quell the big match nerves which had kept her awake for most of the night.
As the host organiser of the sixth clash between the women of Wales and England, she knew better than anybody the significance of the next few hours. This was much more than a game of rugger. It was the day when the audience response would determine whether her sex had really made its mark on the most intimately physical of all outdoor team sports.
I had come, full of joy and rich in mixed metaphor, to watch jolly hockey sticks replacing the blood and bruises of the real thing.
There would never be a better chance to challenge such chauvinist prejudices. Although their first club sides date back to the late 1970s and the Women's Rugby Football Union (WRFU) was formed nine years ago, last Sunday was the first time they had been allowed to use a national stadium for a home international match.
And if that were not milestone enough, the game was to be refereed by Derek Bevan, who took charge of last year's World Cup final in which Australia and England could have filled Twickenham many times over.
Would such an eloquent vote of confidence from one of the most respected officials of the men's game produce the kind of spectator attendance which was so desperately needed?
That all this was haunting the Welsh chairman's mind through those fitful hours of darkness was confirmed first thing on the morning of battle by her roommate Tania Wear, a 26-year-old engineering undergraduate, loose head prop forward and new cap. ``Every time I rolled over, I was aware of Bess lying there wide awake, staring at the ceiling,'' she said.
Miss Evans, an athletic and irrepressibly cheerful postgraduate student of the University of Wales, where she is studying for an M.Phil in sports physiology, agreed that it had been a disastrous night. ``The trouble was that I was wearing two hats. As a player I badly want to beat England but I'm also concerned that the whole day is a success. Because we are playing at the Arms Park, I thought it was important to keep up the stature of the occasion by booking the two teams into good hotels nearby. The Welsh Rugby Union gave us the ground but we have to pay for the security stewards and although both the Grand and the Angel hotels have generously given me time to settle their accounts, I'll be in big trouble if we don't get enough through the turnstiles.''
With 130 club sides but no major sponsor, women's rugby is both the fastest-growing team sport in Britain (according to the Sports Council) and a shoestring survivor. That one of its star players should have to lift her eyes from the scrum and anxiously count the paying punters comes as no surprise to Karen Almond, a PE teacher from Hertfordshire who is the England visitors' captain, fly half and a veteran of 20 internationals. ``We've always had to pay for our own travel and hotels and we even have to buy our shirts and socks out of our own pocket,'' she said without a hint of complaint. ``We had our own world cup competition last year and England lost to the US in the final. We'd love to go over there to play a return but it's an awfully long way away.''
By 6.30am, Miss Evans gave up the unequal struggle against insomnia, got dressed and went out to pace the Cardiff pavements. Three hours later she joined her teammates for a carbohydrate breakfast of pasta and a lemon and lime energy drink which Carol Thomas, a wing forward with eight previous caps but today one of the replacements on the bench, said tasted much better with vodka in it. Everyone laughed a bit too loudly. Badinage was clearly an approved antidote to ever-tightening nerves.
Afterwards in room 102 ``just give me five minutes to tidy away yesterday's knickers'' (more laughter and several ribald comments) Miss Evans laid newspaper on the bed to get down to the chore of boot-cleaning. ``I never had any feminist ambition to knock down barriers,'' she said. ``I was introduced to the game at college and wanted to play it because unlike hockey and netball it was a young, growing sport and I suppose the physical contact side of it appealed to me, too.''
With an hour to go before kick-off, both teams were changed and out on the turf for team pictures. Edginess was everywhere as each player found her own method to calm a pounding heart. Miss Wear looked up at the empty stands. ``You can almost feel them filled with people, can't you?'' she said. ``It's a dream come true. At college a lot of the boys talk about one day playing at Cardiff Arms Park well I've beaten them too it.''
The crowd, including guests, built up to about 3,000 and the all-important turnstile receipts to Pounds 6,500 ``certainly enough to cover the hotel and security bills'', said a much relieved Miss Evans afterwards. If it was not exactly the capacity 53,000 that would have graced the comparable men's international clash, by the time the band had played the national anthems, there was no shortage of partisan clamour.
And within about 20 minutes at least one male spectator was aware of a strange attitude conversion. England's fleet-footed Deborah Francis had gone over for a try in the corner; at the other end Welsh flanker Jackie Morgan had taken advantage of an appalling defensive mix-up to touch down the equalising points; the crowd, equally divided in allegiance, bayed its encouragement and the field was no longer full of women but of rugby players locked in mighty conflict.
The game ebbed and flowed with Miss Almond and her opposing Welsh fly-half, Samantha Porter, exchanging a couple of penalty goals each. A lengthy period of English pressure in the last half hour brought a spectacular try from full-back Jane Mitchell and a winning margin of 14-10.
Back at the hotel, Rosie Golby, a player herself and the secretary of the WRFU, laughed at my reaction. ``That's what nearly everyone says when they watch for the first time that they soon forget that we are women,'' she said.
Last to arrive at the reception was Miss Evans delayed by having two stitches in a badly cut lip.
`I went in to tackle Jill Burns, the English No8, and her head popped up and caught me,'' she said philosophically. ``It doesn't look very pretty and I'm afraid it's ruined my chances for tonight.''
Her mother, Jean Evans, put a consoling arm around her. ``She's had black eyes, terrible bruises and one broken leg and I always seem to end up taking her to hospital,'' she said.
``But I never worry. Our whole household is given over to women's rugby and she's doing what she wants to do.''
Copyright (C) The Times, 1992
"Hard tackles on a shoestring; Life and Times." Times [London, England] 12 Feb. 1992