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Women's rugby takes next step

Eleanor Oldroyd Eleanor Oldroyd | 12:00 UK time, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

It's never a particularly cheerful experience queuing in the rain for a train away from south west London after an England rugby international.

But many of us standing in a downpour at Twickenham station last Saturday had unexpected smiles on our faces. We'd just witnessed an England win against New Zealand. And not just that - an England try, too.

Just a couple of hours after Steve Borthwick's team had trudged down the tunnel, reflecting on another autumn international defeat by the All Blacks - albeit one where they'd shown some true fighting spirit in defence - his female counterpart Catherine Spencer was leading her team in an ecstatic celebration of victory over the world champions.

It was the first time in eight years that England's women had overcome the Black Ferns. And they did it showing style and creativity that lit up a foul November afternoon.

When Spencer got onto the end of a break from prop Claire Purdy and crossed the line, the 12,500 fans who had stayed on after the end of the men's game went potty. It's not often this autumn that they've had the chance to cheer an England try.

Some were there as die-hard England women's rugby fans. But most, I suspect, knew the trains were all over the place as they often manage to be on a rugby Saturday (flooding at Feltham, apparently) and had decided to delay their departure.

Passing over the chance of karaoke in the Ruck and Maul bar, they had taken their beers back to their seats. And they were rewarded for their curiosity.

I sat alongside injured England flanker Tom Rees, who was witnessing his first full women's international, and was full of praise for the quality of the rugby on display, appreciating particularly the tireless running of Maggie Alphonsi, his fellow back row forward.

Just above us on the media gantry, a group of hardened hacks had stayed behind, too.
One TV commentator told me it felt like the good old days of watching rugby in the 1970s.

"There's more space for the backs to run into because the whole thing is less confrontational than the men's game - you're actually seeing players of all different shapes and sizes for once," he said.

Catherine Spencer in action against New Zealand's women
England captain Catherine Spencer in action against New Zealand at Twickenham

"Let's not forget these are amateur players, not full time professionals - but I thought the skill sets on display were top notch".

He acknowledged there were mistakes being made out there, "but the men's game was hardly without error, was it?

"Even in that there were a few kicks you felt your granny would have made. I think any fan who relishes watching rugby players running and passing would have enjoyed it."

The victory couldn't have been better timed - the following day, the RFU announced details of next year's Rugby World Cup, to be held in this country for the first time.

Women's team sport in this country is enjoying a higher profile than ever, with England's Ashes winning cricketers being rightly feted for their achievements, and the footballers narrowly missing out glory at the European Championships last summer.

This could be the moment for England's women's rugby team to win long-awaited wider recognition for their skills - particularly as the Sevens version of the sport prepares to take its place in the Olympic programme in 2016.

And perhaps it's time to stop comparing how women play games which are traditionally the domain of men.

There are obvious physiological differences, let's face it. Women may not tackle as hard or kick as far as the guys but maybe the sceptics should be prepared to accept that it's the same game, just played differently.

If you were the incredulous and miserable looking bloke standing in front of me at Twickenham on Saturday, yes, I do mean you.

"Stay and watch women? Playing rugby? Why on earth would I want to do that?"

Well, if Catherine Spencer lifts that World Cup at The Stoop next September, maybe you'll wish you had. Like the rest of us, you could then have said, "Ah, I just knew they'd do it after that win over New Zealand at Twickenham."


  • Comment number 1.

    Good article Eleanor and huge congrats to the womens team for the win on Saturday. I was fortunate enough to attend an RFU coaching conference in the summer when the ladies team and coaching staff ran one of the sessions - their skill and commitment was second to none and had a few hardened male players wincing - I should know, I had to hold a piece of rope for one drill that the women ran under for a rucking drill - scared me to death ! Best of luck to Catherine, Gary Street and the rest of the squad for next summer and the World Cup, let's see if they can replicate the 6 nations success of late.

  • Comment number 2.

    Fab article Ellie, couldn't agree more. I went to the match with the girls team from my old school who had just played their first ever game and the England result and the experience as a whole spurred the girls on to keep playing and learning the game. Was a fantastic performance, great to see so many people staying for the full 80 minutes.
    All the luck in the world to the team for the upcoming season, I'll see you at the world cup!!

  • Comment number 3.

    Good article Ellie - but what a shame that the various hacks (including and above all the BBC ones) could not bring themselves to even mention this game in subsequent reports on the news! What would it have cost them to simply say "but meanwhile England's women have beaten New Zealand 10-3"? As you say, the reporters where there already so they could hardly claim that they did not know!

    The biggest problem women's sport faces is the blinkered, neanderthal, misogynsts who claim to be the Corporation's sport's experts and control the sports output.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hearty congratulations to Catherine and the team - my 17yo daughter and her team-mates were privileged to have a coaching session from her and Kim Oliver only a couple of weeks ago - great ladies!

    The final paragraph in Eleanor's article sadly says it all - 'at the Stoop next September'. I wouldn't have hurt the RFU to host the England home matches and the finals at Twickenham - even if England win the World Cup next year, and I've no doubt they can, women's rugby will never really appear to have been taken as seriously as men's until they get the same chance to play their games at Fortress Twickenham - shame on you RFU!

  • Comment number 5.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if aunty beeb sent videos of the women’s games? Since they are amateurs, perhaps those of us living outside the UK (and being starved of rugby) might be allowed to see them? It sounds as if they still play rugby union, not the league look-alike that the men seem to be approaching.

  • Comment number 6.

    There are videos on the RFU site.

  • Comment number 7.

    I am disappointed that there does not appear to be any televised coverage of high profile (eg Eng v NZ) women's games. Not even edited highlights on the BBC website. Shame.

  • Comment number 8.

    “I am disappointed that there does not appear to be any televised coverage of high profile (eg Eng v NZ) women's games. Not even edited highlights on the BBC website. Shame.”

    McTurk- you clearly didn’t watch Sky Sports coverage of the women’s game after the men’s game. Their super slow and hd coverage highlighted the excellent skill sets of both teams and was an excellent advert for the women’s game. Not only this, but Sky regularly show highlights of the women’s game on their show called The Rugby Club. Sky will also be showing the entire World Cup Live next year.

  • Comment number 9.

    RosslynPark: I stand corrected.
    Perhaps it is time I put my hand in my pocket and made Mr Murdoch a bit wealthier. I surrender.


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