Women's rugby doesn't get a bad press; it gets no press at all. And this despite the fact that England's women have won four Six Nations Championships straight - and were runners-up to New Zealand in the last two World Cups.
Things should change this summer when England will host the women's World Cup for the first time. Sky is covering the semi-finals and final live, and showing highlights of the pool matches. For the England team, it is the opportunity of a lifetime, but it has come at a cost.
Hooker Amy Garnett, 33, and centre Claire Allan, 24, both work full-time as policewomen, Garnett in Newham, east London and Allan in Acton, west London. To play in the World Cup they will each have to take three months unpaid leave. Scrum-half Amy Turner is a community support officer. She has decided to take a year-long unpaid sabbatical to concentrate on the season ahead.
The three get good support from their police colleagues and supervisors, the odd bit of teasing aside ("Sometimes if we have to knock a door down they'll be like, 'Let's take Amy along,'" jokes Garnett), but for a world-class athlete to be burdened with such a heavy workload seems absurd. "Rugby," says Garnett, "pretty much takes up your whole life."
"If you've got a full-time job, it is like having a part-time job on top of that," explains Turner, "because you are looking at anything from eight to 16 hours a week training and playing rugby." Allan, England's full-back, agrees. "It's tough. I remember once when I had a really important league match, I finished a night shift at seven in the morning, had a couple of espressos, went straight to play a game, finished, showered, and then went straight back to work. I played all right in the game but when I was back at work at 3am, I was seeing double."
All three erupt into laughter at the story. They are obviously close friends, which is fortunate, as Garnett points out: "Your social life is sort of zero. We get two weeks off in the summer, but the rest of the time you end up saying no to weddings, birthdays, christenings."
Although women's cricket and football have started to attract more mainstream coverage, rugby is lagging behind. "It is frustrating," says Turner, "because if we had more recognition English fans would be quite chuffed. They'd think, 'Our men aren't in a great place right now but our women are doing well.'"
Garnett is a little less diplomatic. "Sometimes I watch the men and think, 'Oh my God, you're a professional, you get all these hours to train, and you're playing like a bunch of muppets.' I'm a hooker and I practise as much as possible. Some of these guys, you see them and sometimes they couldn't hit a barn door with their throwing." She pauses before adding: "And we're generally a lot better-looking too."
Garnett, who has 81 caps, made her debut in 2000. In that time she has watched the standard of the women's game sky-rocket. "Like a lot of the older girls, I didn't start playing rugby till university. But players now have been playing since they were nippers. Skill-wise, our game has gone through the roof."
Turner started playing when she was five. "I used to watch my older brother play at Kingston rugby club and they had a mixed under-sevens team that I started playing for." Like Garnett, she is one of the more experienced players in a side whose blend of nous and youth has helped it become one of the world's top two teams, alongside world champions New Zealand. "The standard of rugby we are playing now is worlds apart from the 2006 World Cup. We've worked much harder on the core skills - passing, kicking, tackling, decision-making."
"It's a nice balance," agrees Garnett, "very similar to what the men had in 2003." This new confidence was brought about by a 10-3 victory at Twickenham over the All Blacks. Interestingly, the men's and women's national teams are far more integrated there. "In the Sevens World Cup last year the New Zealand men's and women's team were training together," recalls Allan, "which is quite a step forward. We'd love to be more involved with the men in the future." With the odd exception - Wasps fly-half Dave Walder and Josh Lewsey have both worked as club coaches in the women's game - the paths of England's two national teams hardly cross.
Partly that is because the women do not play at Twickenham much. "First we were at St Albans," says Garnett. "Then London Irish," adds Turner. "Then London Welsh," chips in Allan, "and now we're at Esher." Before the win against New Zealand last November, the team had not played at Twickenham since 2006. When they were allowed out onto the turf last November they won a lot of converts. "We don't kick as much as the men," explains Garnett, "we play the more exciting style of rugby because we keep the ball in hand more. It's ambitious. There are big smashes and lots of offloads, it is good fun to watch."
"At times when we had played here before we had not been put on the ticket," points out Garnett. "People did not even know we were playing." For the team, playing more matches in the public eye is important. "You're an English rugby player, you want to be playing your games at Twickenham," says Turner. "We should be the curtain-raisers for the men." It is time the team got a little of the recognition they have long deserved.
The Observer (London, England) (Feb 7, 2010): p34.
From left, Amy Turner, Amy Garnett and Claire Allan photogaphed at Twickenham.