Monday, 8 May 2000

Lomu of women's game fired up for European title

Pete Nichols

It was a little over a month ago that the English women's rugby team wrapped up a Five Nations grand slam with a comprehensive 64-9 victory over Scotland at the Stewart's Melville ground in Edinburgh. Only one of the four matches had been close, that against France at Massey, near Paris, in February, when England scored in the final minute of time added on to snatch a 24-18 win. The remainder of the tournament had been a romp, confirming their status as the best team in Europe.

In the modest but hectic world of women's rugby, however, there is no resting on laurels. Today in Almeria, on the eastern wing of the Costa del Sol, the first games of the European championship take place and England have to prove their superiority all over again.The cast list is familiar, for Spain, Scotland, France and Wales contested the Five Nations with England and they form the core of Group A in the European event. The additional teams in the top group are Ireland, Italy and Kazakhstan, fifth in the 1999 event and against whom England open their championship today.

Europe takes on an elastic shape for sporting events, as evidenced by the participation of the Kazakhs, whose capital city Almaty is closer to Beijing than Moscow. Even so, rumours will definitely have reached them of the player in the England team they will have to stop if they are going to win.

Chris Diver always wanted to be a firefighter. As a child she would pass the fire station in Slough on the way to school. "I thought, they squirt water and climb ladders and that would be fun," she recalls. Even now, six years into the job, she has an undiminished love of her work. "It's better than I thought, although we don't save lives every minute like they do in London's Burning; we get our share of fires in rubbish bins and horses that have fallen into trenches."

Diver's rugby career developed in a more accidental fashion. Unsure of how the fire brigade would feel about women enlisting, she decided to go to university first. It was during her final two years at Chelsea College in Eastbourne, where she took a Bachelor of Education degree in PE and science, that the university formed a women's rugby team and she switched her allegiance from hockey.

On graduation she applied to West Sussex for a job as a firefighter and was posted to Crawley. If it had been Worthing or Bognor the rugby career might well have ended there, but in Crawley there was a women's team.

Work and pleasure dovetailed as the fitness for the job - "you've got to be able to sling 14st people over your shoulder" - paid dividends on the pitch. In 1997 she was spotted by Carol Isherwood, the England performance director, at a sevens tournament in Crawley and enlisted into the national squad.

From the start Diver, at 5ft 10in and 13st, could easily have been assigned to the pack, but she has always been a wing. "I've never done any serious running, the last time was at school, but I'm naturally quick," she says. Quick enough and strong enough to earn the highest of accolades. "I'm the female Jonah Lomu, I've been told," she says, laughing.

A series of stunning recent performances, culminating in the last-minute try that stole that England-France Five Nations game, have reinforced the image and the reputation. Yet it was not an easy ride to the top.

"Last season I had a very good game against Scotland and the success got to me a bit," she admits. She became anxious about her perfor mances and her game suffered. The pleasure principle was discarded. "I can't really explain it. I just felt a lot of pressure, so I started working with our psychologist, Kirsten Barnes. Now I don't dwell on matches a week before they happen. I just enjoy it. They [the tries] just happen," she says.

For the past three winters Diver has played for Saracens, who have just won the league title ahead of Richmond. The 28-year-old is full of praise for Nigel Wray, who owns the club. "We've had women's matches preceding the men's games, which is great. He's been so supportive of us," she says.

She is eager for her sport to move more into the mainstream - "I'd love to play at Twickenham, wouldn't anyone?" - but the future of women's rugby is in the balance. With no television or gate money to feed the coffers, women's rugby union in the UK is dependent on lottery funding.

Recently the Scotland team lost a government grant worth Pounds 79,000 because they came only third in the Five Nations, and everyone connected with the England team tells you how tenuous is the hold on their funding should they not justify their ranking as favourites in Almeria.

On the other hand, the World Cup comes around again in 2002. The last edition was held in the Netherlands and won by New Zealand - the Black Ferns, as they are known in the women's game. The encounter that settled the issue came in the semi-final against England when the heat of the battle became so intense that two English players ended up in hospital, one with a broken nose, the other with cracked ribs.

England are one of the two countries bidding to host the 2002 event. What a pleasure it would be if the female Jonah Lomu, from Crawley, could put one over the world champions. It would be only fair, given the number of occasions the All Blacks' male Chris Diver has done it to us.

The Guardian (London, England) (May 8, 2000): p7.

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