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Rachael Burford: 'I was brought back to where women's rugby was five years ago with just the old man and his dog watching'

By Rachael Burford
(Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

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Considering everything that has happened this year, with all the restrictions, law variations and covid violations; the women’s league is in an exceptional place. This weekend, for the first time in over a year, fans have been invited back to the stands to cheer on teams competing in the Allianz Premier 15’s semi-finals. Quins will be facing Wasps at the Stoop, whilst just down the road at the StoneX Stadium, Saracens will fight it out with Loughborough.

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Historically, the result of the semi-final has often been predetermined, leaving little room for other teams to have a real shot. However, this year feels different. Speaking from a Quins perspective, I can say this year is perhaps the most competitive semi-final we have ever faced. If we don’t bring our A-game from the start, Wasps could pose a serious threat to us.

As captain of the Quins squad, you would think admitting that would be a challenge. But when you take a look at the bigger picture it’s actually positive news. The league is now competitive, which is something we, as players, have always wanted. Matches are no longer predictable, instead they are gripping, edge of your seat games of rugby which bring the sport to a whole new level for both players and fans.

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As players, we have almost become acclimatised to the noises of the fans and music on game day. Running out to the sound of a roaring crowd before a match is something that players embrace with open arms. We love it. So, when this was taken away from us at the start of the pandemic, I was brought back to where women’s rugby was five years ago with just the old man and his dog watching the match.

This weekend is going to be worlds apart from that. I know the Stoops capacity is set at 4,000 seats, and I would be incredibly surprised if all of the tickets haven’t been snapped up by game day.

I am so excited to hear the raw of the crowd again, it sounds so cliché, but we as players, rely on our fans and their voices to carry us through the match. Each and every person in that stand contributes towards elevating the atmosphere and environment, and I cannot wait to be back amongst it on Saturday.

What is interesting now is we are seeing a lot of Premier 15’s teams building their own strong fan bases. So, to have them back in the stadium with us and getting that face time in will be incredibly rewarding for both sides. Fans now have the opportunity to truly immerse themselves into the women’s game, they can actually see the game in the flesh instead of through a TV screen. They get to experience the anticipation and excitement of the match in real-time, with players just a touching distance away.

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Zoe Harrison

Saracens’ Zoe Harrison scores a try during a previous Premier 15s final against Harlequins (Photo by Matthew Lewis – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

As we move into some sense of normality, it is crucial to highlight the importance of young girls getting access to these games, particularly as so many of them have missed out on rugby this year. As players, we all know how important it is for us to ensure we continue to inspire the next generation. We have a responsibility to make sure the game is left in a good place for the next set of players to take over.

Just getting some topflight sport back onto the agenda is so vital for our young people, it is important that these young girls and boys feel like they are a part of the game. After all, they will be the ones to carry it through long after I, and others, have left the field.

Reflecting on the growth of the women’s game over the last few months it has to be said some great things have happened.

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For example, just last week London Irish announced they will be forming a professional women’s team in the hopes of bidding for a place in the Premier 15’s. This is excellent news for the game, as it opens up more opportunities for young girls to become involved with the sport.

When I look back to when I was sixteen years old, my only option to continue playing rugby at a good standard was to move away from my family and go to sixth form to play rugby alongside my studies. Now, as a young girl, there are more opportunities afforded in terms of education and playing. The player pathways and academy options are growing, we are seeing more hotspots where education and elite level rugby are being forged together.

Through my work with Girls Rugby Club, I want to ensure that the female figures who are involved in the game at an elite level are made available to young girls as role models. I want young girls to look at these role models and feel like they can do the same thing. The best thing about the current crop of professional players is that they are all more than keen to get involved and develop the next generation. They know that for us to grow the game, and for it to be where we really want it to be, they have to play a crucial role.

I just know there is a young Emily Scarratt out there, playing at grassroots level, who is yet to see elite level rugby as a viable career option. Because she has not had the chance to watch competitive matches like the ones being shown this weekend.

This weekend’s semi-finals should not be missed. If you are unable to get down to the stadium and cheer the players on, make sure to watch both matches live on the BT Sport app. Also, don’t feel disheartened if you can’t make noise in the stands – start talking about the games on social media! The more noise we can make about this weekend’s fixtures, both online and in person, the better.

Keep up to date with me on Twitter, and be sure to give Quins a follow too!

To get your hands on tickets for this weekends match, click here.

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Rachael Burford: 'I was brought back to where women's rugby was five years ago with just the old man and his dog watching'

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