THE audible crunch of the scrum was proof, if any were needed, that the first ever women's rugby international between Scotland and England was no place for flower-arrangers. The scoffs of macho detractors died in the throat as the thunderous business of England's 26-0 victory riveted the attention of 5,000 devotees at Boroughmuir RFC in Edinburgh on Friday.
Three tries and the accurate boot of Deidrie Mills ensured England's unbeaten progress to the quarter-finals of the women's rugby world championship. But it was the standard of the mauls, rucks and tackles that had the crowd on its feet in admiration and exhortation. The Scots sang Flower of Scotland, the England bench screamed: ``Get in her face!''
England, beaten only once in five years, are on course for a final showdown against the USA, whose 121-0 win over Japan was both an indication of brute force and the lack of stature of their opponents. With a 4ft 11in shop assistant in the squad and two players aged 47, Japan were long shots for the crown.
But Scotland were pround of themselves. Sandra ``Gnomi'' Williamson played with the snap and ferocity of Gary Armstrong at scrum-half, while the forwards, exemplified by Pogo Paterson, were ``superb, committed, gutsy'', according to full-back Mickey Cave.
There was never any doubt in high places that the world championship would be a success. The president of Kazakhstan sent his team into the fray with this ringing endorsement: ``This tournament of youth, sport and beauty will stay a brilliant memory in the hearts of all the participants.''
He probably did not have in mind the night 10 of the Irish team graced a policemen's disco with one of their number dressed in a size 26 nylon floral dress and yellow-flowered swimming cap. But it was a ``brilliant memory'' anyway. Not least for the policemen who arrived at the Irish hotel next morning to express their personal admiration.
The world championship is that sort of event. An exuberant mix of fierce pride, practical jokes and penury with tooth-rattling tackles thrown in. ``I wouldn't like to put our first team out against that lot,'' a male voice was heard to mutter as the Scots and Russians collided at Gala on Wednesday.
A number of preconceptions that women rugby players are a bunch of big, butch Berthas with whom one would not share even a well-lit alley have been ripped asunder and thrown to the merry Scottish winds.
Kazakhstan, for instance, have a hairdresser in the team. They are here for the greater glory of the former Soviet republic and the experience of foreign competition. They had played only three internationals before this. They had never seen tackle bags or rucking shields before they used each other instead.
They were, however, magnificently well-organised compared with the Russians who arrived at Manchester airport with no transport to Edinburgh, nowhere to stay and no money to pay for it. But, responding to the Scottish equivalent of Dunkirk spirit, a coach company donated a bus and driver and StJohn's Hospital, Livingstone, found space in their nurses' quarters. Handy for the Accident and Emergency Department.
Admittedly, the bus subsequently failed its MOT and the Russians were 30 minutes late for the Scotland match. ``No problem,'' said one of the tournament organisers, operating from a cupboard in Meadowbank Stadium. ``It gave more time for the crowd to gather.''
The fact the championship is being held at all, when Holland withdrew as hosts only 90 days before the scheduled start, is a tribute to Scots efficiency, shameless begging and sheer madness.
``The sport does tend to attract boisterous types,'' Joanne Hall, the Ireland team manager, said. ``Total headers, we call them. But you have very, very quiet girls taking up rugby too. Funnily enough, they're often the most aggressive on the pitch. It does bring out the assertive in you but I've found I'm a lot easier to live with when I play rugby.''
Everybody plays down the violence. ``All sports can be physical,'' the players tend to say, as though savage collisions with 13 stones worth of lose-head prop are an everyday occurrence. Still, Debbie Francis, Scotland's vice-captain, received her worst injury, a broken ankle, when she tripped while out shopping.
The women who play rugby are adamant that no other sport could possibly provide the same camaraderie or intense satisfaction. ``It's the challenge,'' Francis said. ``A girl doesn't have too many chances to use her body to the absolute maximum. This is it.''
Commitment is total. Each Scottish player paid more than Pounds 400 to take part and the Irish team up to Pounds 600 each. The pervasive pennilessness, the youth of the sport, the panic-stations organising and the fact that Scottish students were last-minute replacements for Spain have all contributed to aspersions that the world championship is no better than a glorified scrum.
But it has changed attitudes, enlivened police discos and, most precious of all, given the sport a hefty shove towards national esteem.
Copyright (C) The Sunday Times, 1994
"As we thought, rugby is a girls' game; Rugby Union." Sunday Times [London, England] 17 Apr. 1994