WALES the spiritual home of rugby, the land that fathered Gareth Edwards, J.P.R. Williams and Barry John. A place where the success of the national team ranks alongside the achievements of Owen Glendower and Aneurin Bevan.
This week, another chapter, albeit a modest one, will be added as Wales plays host to the first women's rugby union World Cup. Twelve teams, including New Zealand, Japan, the Soviet Union and Canada, converge on the valleys for the week-long tournament, starting on Saturday.
This is not a genteel sport these women play to win but it is not a game played by female navvies. A quick check down the player-profiles reveals a host of engineers, solicitors and PR executives. But in the twinkling of an eye, they shed their shoulder pads and high heels and put on shin pads and gumshields.
Sue Dorrington works for Help the Aged as a special events manager, dealing with the rich and famous to persuade them to support the charity. Her every free moment is spent on the rugby field or in the training gym. ``I spend half my life in a tracksuit and half my life dolled up in the office,'' she said. ``Most of the titled women I speak to have no idea about my rugby. I can spend my morning shaking hands with Princess Diana and then run off to training in the afternoon.''
Originally from Minnesota, Dorrington came to England to further her rugby career after playing in the United States. Now she is the Richmond and England hooker, qualifying for the national side through her marriage to an Englishman.
``There is something inexplicable about it,'' she said. ``It gets into your system. Nothing gives me as much pleasure as rugby. It's my only sport. I'm 5ft tall and there are few team
sports around that would accept a 5ft loud-mouthed American.''
Although she is now a fully fledged Anglophile, Dorrington reveals her American roots in her attitude to the game. ``I'm fortunate to be playing to a high standard, but I'm very competitive,'' she said. ``The minute I'm dropped from the England squad or from the Richmond first team, I'll quit. I play to compete, not for fun.''
Dorrington knows no fear: that rugby is a fierce contact sport is one of the attractions. ``It's the challenge of playing the best I can and beating my opposition technically that appeals,'' she said. ``As a hooker, it's a battle all the time and this is a game where women can use their power and strength, especially in the front row.''
Her captain in the England side is Karen Almond, a PE teacher at a girls' prep school at Potters Bar. Her colleagues in the staff room and the parents are very supportive, if a little surprised, by her sporting achievements. ``Most of them are quite impressed,'' she said. ``At parents' evenings, we spend most of the time talking about rugby.''
Almond has played rugby for the last ten years, since she was at Loughborough University, and has seen the game grow and develop to the point where there are now 100 clubs in the Women's Rugby Football Union. But she is still aware that women's rugby has a difficult image problem to overcome. While it is a rough game, she is adamant that it is not as bad as it seems.
``We've worked hard to keep the image clean,'' she said. ``I find it much more horrific to watch from the touchline than I do when I'm playing. I think we are more careful than the men in the rucks and mauls we tend to look before we jump. I like to think we show the same level of competitiveness but not the same vindictiveness.''
Liza Burgess, the Welsh captain and No.8, is not so sure. She believes there is little difference between the level of aggression and commitment shown in the men's and women's game.
``As a forward, I think it is just as rough and tough as the men's game,'' she said. ``What you want to do is get in there and win the ball. The game is all about that. If you play a sport, the ultimate aim is to win. Without that, it is not a sport.''
Copyright (C) The Times, 1991
"Women flock to valley of the mauls; Rugby Union." Times [London, England] 2 Apr. 1991