A DARK cloud looms on the horizon of women's rugby. It is called New Zealand and the 15 other countries that contest the third World Cup in Holland over the next fortnight await with some trepidation to see whether its womenfolk can match the feats of the All Blacks.
The old order is changing, no matter what the gender. England, the holders, the United States and France have been the traditional powers but this weekend will show what the southern hemisphere can offer: New Zealand played in the first women's World Cup, in Wales in 1991, but withdrew from the 1994 tournament after an absence of support from the New Zealand Rugby Football Union.
They return with a flourish, underpinned by the growing popularity of competitive touch rugby in the southern- hemisphere summer and successes that include a 67-0 demolition of England last year. They will be joined, for the first time in a world tournament, by Australia, while Scotland will enter as European champions after a season in which they recorded their first success against England, by 8-5 in March.
For the first time, the tournament commands the support of the International Rugby Board (IRB), which will meet all the costs. It is a far cry from seven years ago, when the overwhelming enthusiasm of the administrators of the women's game in Britain carried all before them, even if it left them in debt by the close.
Now, however, there is greater recognition by the men of the merits of women's rugby. For example, England will defend their title after spending a week together at Lilleshall, thanks to a Pounds 146,000 grant from the National Lottery; the team is sponsored by Swiss Life (UK), supported by ADMeat, and a further eight companies con tribute significantly to the squad's preparation.
Ten years ago, when Gill Burns played her first international (against Sweden, England's pool opponents tomorrow), the players paid their own way in terms of kit, travel and accommodation. Burns leads England into what will be her third World Cup, knowing the financial worries that afflicted the 1991 organisers are things of the past - though she has not taken a holiday in the past six years and the mileage on her car is approaching 200,000.
This has not stopped three members of the squad - Susie Appleby (policewoman), Janice Byford (teacher) and Helen Clayton (lecturer) - from taking career breaks so that they can concentrate on a successful World Cup. It is also an opportunity for youth, because in Jo Yapp, 18, England include one of the youngest competitors in the tournament. Whether England can retain their crown remains to be seen. Their squad has changed out of all recognition since the visit to New Zealand, but the forwards do not look as formidable as the pack that squeezed the life out of the United States in the 1994 final; they have received coaching from luminaries such as Dick Best and Phil Larder and enter the fray encouraged by their 62-8 defeat of Ireland a month ago.
They are seeded to meet New Zealand in the semi-finals, at the Dutch National Rugby Centre in Amsterdam. Scotland, drawn in the same pool as New Zealand, must beat Italy to ensure a quarter-final place, while Wales are in the same pool as the Americans, whose free-running backs provided the highlights of the 1994 tournament.
Ireland's inexperienced team, which has received financial support from the Irish Rugby Football Union worth Pounds 20,000, will lack nothing in commitment but look to have the most demanding of games on the opening day, when they play Australia. It is, though, New Zealand's performance that will be watched most closely. "Ever since they beat us in August, I have been dying for another chance," Emma Mitchell, England's talented scrum half, said. That chance may be just around the corner.
WOMEN'S WORLD CUP SQUADS
ENGLAND: Backs: P George (Wasps), N Brown (Worcester), P Spivey (Clifton), J Molyneux (Waterloo), S Day (Wasps), K Knight (Old Leamingtonians), T Collins (Saracens), S Appleby (Saracens), G Prangnell (Wasps), E Mitchell (Saracens), J Yapp (Worcester). Forwards: J Smith (Wasps), J Byford (Saracens), T O'Reilly (Saracens), M Edwards (Saracens), N Ponsford (Saracens), J Poore (Richmond), T Siwek (Richmond), L Uttley (Wasps), C Green (Saracens), S Robertson (Leeds), G Stevens (Clifton), J Ross (Saracens), H Clayton (Saracens), C Frost (Saracens), G Burns (Waterloo, captain).
WALES: Backs: N Evans (Cardiff Harlequins), T Comley (Ty-Croes), E Green (Saracens), S Thomas (Waterloo), S Phillips (Aberystwyth), L Rickard (Aberystwyth), R Williams (Wasps), S Williams (Ty-Croes), B Evans (Cardiff Harlequins, captain), R Owens (Swansea Uplands), S Calnan (Cheltenham). Forwards: D Mason (Waterloo), J Studley (Blaenau Gwent), A Antoniazzi (Waterloo), L Pritchard (Cardiff Harlequins), N Griffiths (Cardiff Harlequins), J Kift (Cardiff Harlequins), A Dent (Waterloo), C Donovan (Saracens), J Robinson (Aberystwyth), J Morgan (Cardiff Harlequins), S Ellis (Richmond), G Baylis (Saracens), E Steer (Swansea Uplands), P Evans (Swansea Uplands), L Burgess (Saracens).
SCOTLAND: Backs: C Herriot (Edinburgh Academicals), A McGrandles (Leeds), M Cave (Saracens), S Brodie (Edinburgh Academicals, K Littlejohn (Leeds, captain), D Fairbairn (Murrayfield Wanderers), P Paterson (Richmond), K Craigie (Murrayfield Wanderers), S Higgins (Edinburgh Academicals), R Lewis (Murrayfield Wanderers), L Blamire (Edinburgh Academicals), P Chalmers (Murrayfield Wanderers). Forwards: J Taylor (Edinburgh Academicals), K Findley (Richmond), L Allsopp (Murrayfield Wanderers), A Christie (Edinburgh Academicals), A MacKenzie (Glasgow Southern), S Scott (Murrayfield Wanderers), M McHardy (Edinburgh Academicals), L Cockburn (Edinburgh Academicals), G Cameron (Murrayfield Wanderers), D Kennedy (Leeds), I Wilson (Alton), J Sheerin (Richmond), J Afseth (Edinburgh Academicals), B MacLeod (Murrayfield Wanderers).
IRELAND: Backs: S Cosgrave (Old Crescent), L Nicholl (Cooke), A Dillon (Blackrock College), C-A Byrne (Blackrock College, captain), F Neary (Waterloo), S Fleming (Cooke), H Siwek (Wasps), R Currie (Cooke), R Shrieves (Richmond), F Devaney (Creggs), S O'Donovan (Waterloo). Forwards: D Campbell (Cooke), O Brown (Shannon), M Nash (Wasps), A Parsons (Wasps), J Moore (Exeter), E Wilt (Crawley), T Kennedy (Old Leamingtonians), M Myles (Wasps), A-M McAllister (Blackrock College), L Noade (Cooke), R Burn (Novocastrians), J O'Gorman (Old Crescent), F Steed (Novocastrians), J Whiteside (Leeds), J McCarthy (Old Crescent).
POOLS: A: England, Canada, Holland, Sweden. B: United States, Spain, Wales, Russia. C: France, Australia, Ireland, Kazakhstan. D: New Zealand, Scotland, Italy, Germany.
ITINERARY: Today: Opening ceremony; Canada v Holland. Tomorrow: Spain v Wales, New Zealand v Germany, France v Kazkhstan, United States v Russia, England v Sweden, Australia v Ireland, Scotland v Italy. May 5: Pool matches between first-round winners; pool matches between first-round losers. 9: Quarter-finals. 12: Semi-finals. 16: Final.
Copyright (C) The Times, 1998
Hands, David. "England outlook blackened by rivals; Rugby Union." Times [London, England] 1 May 1998