Saturday, 26 December 2009

England's new golden girl is on a mission Scarratt keen to change image of women's rugby

THE answer to Martin Johnson's creative void is

19 years old, stands a fraction under six feet and rips across the gain line with grace and beauty not seen since Jeremy Guscott lit up winter afternoons. The hair might be a little on the long side for Johnno, and changing-room arrangements could present a problem, but in all other respects Emily Scarratt is your girl.

Ms Scarratt, the youngest member of the England women's squad, touches down at an average of a try per match and can play across the back line. In England's subordination of New Zealand at Twickenham on the same bleak November afternoon that the men lost to the All Blacks, Scarratt was poster girl under the high ball at full-back. More than 12,000 stayed behind in filthy weather to watch our women beat down the world champions.

This was not rugby lite. Had the Rugby Football Union the foresight to keep four sides of Twickenham open instead of one, the place would have been packed out. Men young and old were left peering one-eyed through gaps in security fences, risking the amber nectar, to watch England win a game of rugby against southern hemisphere opposition. Next time it might be an idea to put the women on first.

Stereotypes were trampled into the mud, which is high on the agenda at the RFU. Watching women taking lumps out of each other in gum shields requires an adjustment. Immersion therapy works best. Eighty minutes glued to the bump and grind at Twickenham cured me.

"It has taken people a while to get their heads around the idea of women playing rugby. There is a big physicality about the game. But it is important that women are taking part in sports like this,'' said Scarratt. "I have had it before when I tell people what sport I play. They say, 'oh you don't look like a rugby player'. We are trying to make the game more appealing and increase participation. Personally what people think doesn't bother me. I just love to play.''

Scarratt is wandering through the sports emporium at Leeds Metropolitan University with a rugby ball under her arm. I was grateful for the prompt since the amazon filling the space was a makeover or two removed from the mug shot in the England media guide.

One day, perhaps, women's rugby might gain the platform that her level of commitment, heart, skill and nerve merits. Were Scarratt a man the cameras would not give her a minute's peace. Here's an idea: why not invite her on to Sky's panel of gnarled ex-pros? Michael Lynagh would be delighted to exchange passes with her.

The boys would be chuffed to find a woman fluent in the game and happy to tackle the tricky subjects, like reconciling the big hit with traditional ideas of femininity. Here is how she does it.

"It is about being comfortable with yourself and your choices. On the pitch, in training, in the gym, we are just rugby players. How people present themselves in their private life is completely different and nobody's business. Some people have issues with that, but the girls are all happy with themselves. There are no issues at all for us.

"When it comes to talking about me and rugby, I prefer to be known for the 12 tries that I scored in 12 games, rather than the way I look. The 12 tries is the important stat. Everything else comes afterwards. I'm a rugby player first. Rugby is what I'm about.''

Scarratt is a second-year sports science undergraduate. It had to be sport. Throw her a ball, any ball and she will hit it, catch it, kick it or slam-dunk it. She played international rounders for England Under-18s and county basketball. Nothing quite gives her the fix she needs like rugby, a game she has played since she was five years-old, tagging along with her dad and older brother.

She brings to it the old enthusiasms of the amateur ethos. Unlike Johnson's over-trained, over-indulged underperformers, the women have not lost the sense of wonder and joy associated with participation. It is fundamentally fun for them, not work. With each defeat Johnson retreats further into his coaching coalition. He should be looking outwards, not in, and could do worse than hang out with our women ahead of the Six Nations.

Scarratt made her debut against the United States in August last year, and scored. "We had a midfield move, I got the ball and hit a line, I didn't remember much until I was over the try line. I just ran as if it were a life or death situation. America were a big, physical side, quite happy to smash you into the middle of next week. It's part of the game. I've grown up with it. Just as you have to pass the ball you have to make a tackle and take a tackle in rugby. I enjoy it in an odd kind of way.''

Time up. She had to go. Another tackle to make. Never mind, the conversation is ongoing. The sisters are on their way: 2010 is World Cup year, a chance to show the world England really does know how to play the game.

Daily Telegraph (London, England) (Dec 26, 2009): p021.

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