AS THE old advertising boast for the Virginia Slims women's tennis circuit had it - 'You've come a long way, baby' - so with the distaff branch of international rugby. Only 10 years ago, when Emma Mitchell played her first Test match against Wales at Newport, the England team slept in bunks or sleeping-bags at the Chepstow youth hostel.
'It was a three o'clock kick-off but we were still slung out by 10am after doing all the chores; the forwards washed up the breakfast things, the backs swept and dusted, and us two half-backs had to clean out the toilets. Then we found a park and 'killed three or four hours mooching about with our rucksacks, sleeping-bags and match kit.'From a Chepstow youth hostel to a swish hotel in Amsterdam . . . that 1988 fixture was only the third international England's women had played. Those pioneers have seen their game develop at such a remarkable pace that yesterday in Holland's capital the Dutch minister of sport, the former Olympic swimming medallist Erica Terpstra, officially opened the third women's World Cup in a jam-packed sell-out new stadium where today England begin the defence of their title against Sweden.
The final will be a fortnight today. Sixteen countries have qualified and although the bookmakers particularly fancy the holders England along with the United States, France and New Zealand, the newly Triple-crowned Scots are seriously optimistic; the Welsh and the Irish also travel with high hopes.
With some enlightened sponsorship, plus Sports Council funding and a Lottery grant, the women's game in England has nervelessly held the gaze and stared back with a bonny smile at the diminishing but still substantial body of men who scoff at their pastime.
The Rugby Football Union has come round at last. After the first women's World Cup in Cardiff in 1991 the International Rugby Football Board refused recognition to a follow-up in Holland, but after it was switched to Edinburgh and become another huge success, England famously winning the final, that haughty body loosened the studs on its starched wing-collars. Although not yet fully integrated the Women's RFU (RFUW) is now accepted under the umbrella of the RFU.
When the engaging scrum-half Mitchell played her first international that afternoon at Newport in 1988 there were reckoned to be about 40 women's sides in England. Today there are 270, and more than 8,500 registered players - which still does not compare, mind you, with the 13,000 players in 600-plus United States teams. Canada boasts nearly 10,000 players. On the other hand, Sweden muster only 100 adult players.
Brought up on men's rugby, you must watch and appreciate the women's game as if through a filter. As in cricket, different qualities predominate. Women's rugby is singularly more nimble and dextrous, and although just as wholehearted it has less of a grudge-driven and bullyingly hard edge.
Training at Lilleshall this week before travelling to Holland on Thursday, the England squad displayed a lightness of touch in mind and spirit that their sombrely grunting male counterparts have long lost. There is a wide blend in ages, although on the practice pitch the mudlarking teenagers are not noticeably in thrall to their two undoubted world stars, the totemesque No. 8 and captain Gill Burns and the equally appealing Mitchell, who set Sky screens alight a couple of weeks ago when playing for Saracens against Wasps in the club cup final.
Like Mitchell, Burns took up the game when chivvied to switch from hockey in her early twenties. 'Rugby took over my life,' says the enthusiast, who teaches PE at Range High School, Formby.
Both women remain chastened by last autumn's first England tour to New Zealand when, after a 28-hour flight, the team had a day's sleep before waking up to play, ludicrously, the full-strength women's All Black XV. Not surprisingly they were beaten, 67 0. It still rankles. In Amsterdam, England are seeded to play New Zealand, who did not attend the World Cup in 1994, in the semi-final on Tuesday week.
'If not quite 67, they were 30 points better than us,' says Mitchell with a delectably determined smile. 'We know we stood off that day and let them come at us, which was fatal.'
At Lilleshall this week the women called in one of the England coaches, the former rugby league stalwart Phil Larder, to galvanise their defences. Larder was a convert inside five minutes and, after two stiff sessions on Monday, stayed over for an extra one on Tuesday. 'I feared the worst, if truth were known. But I've been impressed. I've drilled them one-on-one just like I have with the men, and they compared on a dead-level par. At defence, their technique and ability to hit hard was an eye-opener; they've got the timing as well as the bottle; they've addressed their apparent weaknesses and now I'd be mighty surprised if any other team in this World Cup can possibly defend as well.'
The Worcester club provide two in the Amsterdam party, the full-back Nicky Brown and Mitchell's deputy, the 18-year-old Jo-Ann Yapp, and I offered the last word to Worcester's rugby director Les Cusworth, former England coach and sparkling fly-half. 'The ladies play and enjoy rugby as it should be played and enjoyed. They are fast and skilful, and though the old-fashioned male in me still winces at some of the physical contact, their vision, handling and deftness of touch can teach many a leading male player a trick or two.'
As the Virginia Slims baby had it, they have come a mighty long way. From that Chepstow youth hostel to a plush hotel in Amsterdam . . .
"Rugby Union: Women's World Cup: It's only ruck and roll but we like it: Even the twits at Twickers take the fillies seriously now. It's been a long hard road, but they've finally arrived." Guardian [London, England] 2 May 1998