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'I'm going to play for England one day, what are you going to do?': How Zoe Harrison dealt with her name-calling secondary school bullies

By Liam Heagney
Zoe Harrison can't wait for England's Six Nations campaign to start next weekend (Photo by Umbro)

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England out-half Zoe Harrison is a soon-to-be 23-year-old in a hurry, still very young at heart but with so much already packed into her burgeoning career. Ask what her rugby highlight has been so far and, sharp as a tack, she quipped: “Going back-to-back in the Prem with Sarries and then going back-to-back in the Grand Slam as well.” That a heck of a lot of trophies. “I know, it’s nice that I can make it sound so easy.”

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Except it hasn’t always been that effortless. No career always runs smooth and Harrison has had plenty of bumps along the way, torn quads due to all her kicking and even some unsavoury name-calling that could well have affected the progress of a lesser steeled mind.

Playing sport has always been her thing. “Rugby, football, cricket, anything,” Harrison told RugbyPass over a midweek Zoom following the break-up of her latest England camp ahead of next Saturday’s 2021 Six Nations start versus Scotland. “Constantly playing in the garden since I was five-year-old.”

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RugbyPass goes behind the scenes at Zoe Harrison’s Saracens

Rugby eventually won out. Naturally so. Harrison’s dad John had represented Wales at schoolboys level while one of her brothers Alex had featured at A-League level with Wasps. “I played with the boys up until U12s and was constantly going out, there is a park just outside our house, constantly going out there, chucking a ball about.

“Even now I still train with my brothers before games, kicking every Friday. I take out my young brother, he comes with me and collects all my balls for me when I kick them over the posts.”

Here’s a thing: the standard of kicking is often criticised in women’s rugby and it’s often down to the lack of development as a teenager of the muscles most used when putting boot to ball. Harrison, though, poetically performs this task for Saracens and England, her accuracy making her stand out from the crowd. “It’s massive,” she agreed when asked about the importance of developing kicking skills from a young age.

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“My brother kicked from when I was younger and I always used to kick to him. I also played football and used to smash it as hard as I could on the field and that has helped. I still keep a football in my ball bag. It is the balance in finding the right kicking coach as well – it’s massive finding something that works for you, sticking to that.

“Throughout my rugby career I have been told many different things and some don’t really work and now I’m finding something that does work for me working on it. There is a coach at Saracens who has been helping me quite a lot lately.

“I have always been able to kick it quite far. I just put a lot of power through the ball and I’m just lucky I can do that. It has led me to tear my quads a few times, so I try to hit as hard as I can, but finding the right technique has made it go further as well lately.”

Deep-rooted confidence has served England star Harrison well. There was a time growing up when playing rugby came with unwanted negative attention but her reaction is a casebook in how any troubled teen should tackle the begrudgers and move on to bigger and better things.

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“In primary school, it was fine. I played football with the boys and rugby, I was in their team, but when it got to secondary school that is when I did get called names for it,” she explained. “The boys I grew up with playing, they were absolutely fine with it but it was when it was new boys who played football and probably didn’t realise girls played rugby that I did get called a few names from it.

“I was going to training every Wednesday with the girls and having a great time with them and I was, ‘You’re not going to stop me from this. I’m making loads of friends from it, I enjoy doing it’.

“At that time I was hoping I could potentially get into England with it and if I am going to play for England one day, what are you going to do? I always stuck with that mindset and it pushed me forward, made me confident and I was, ‘Do you know what, I’m not going to listen to you. I am going to focus on myself’.”

Enjoyably, England playmaker Harrison has long since had the last laugh, encountering some of her name-callers further down the track and putting them firmly in their place. “It’s actually a funny story. Two boys used to pick on me quite a lot and called me a lot of names.

“Going on my Facebook messages one day, one of them decided to be like, ‘Oh, I see what you are doing, it’s great, well done you’. I was like, ‘Alright cool, thank you for that’.

“And I remember I went out on a Christmas Eve to one of the bars and another one came up to me. He was trying to talk to me about it and I was, ‘Do you know what, I haven’t got time to speak to you. Five years ago you weren’t saying any of this’.”

Harrison was just 19 when she made her England Test debut in November 2017, graduating to a full-time RFU deal just 14 months later. Life isn’t all rugby for her. She has a university rehabilitation and exercise qualification secured for a future time when her sport is no longer her wage, but right now she is in awe of those who play the sport simply for the love it.

“Most of the girls at Sarries still aren’t pro and to hear what they do and still come to training, gym, playing on the weekend, I’m like, ‘How do you do that? That is honestly incredible how you still perform to the best of your abilities after a long day at work’. It’s crazy and I’m very grateful that they keep going and doing it.

“If they didn’t do what they did I wouldn’t be here now,” Harrison continued, referencing the England trailblazers of old whose amateur era trophy-winning exploits helped convince the RFU that going pro was the right thing for elite-level women’s rugby. “I would have to be out there and have a job, probably stressed to the max that the Six Nations is coming on the horizon and I have actually still got my job to sort out. So I’m very grateful and very thankful for all that they did.”

When Harrison appeared in the acclaimed 2019 Saracens Women – Going Pro documentary by RugbyPass, her bugbear was how people who hadn’t seen her sport would make inaccurate comparisons with the men’s game. “They haven’t actually seen it and they are judging it just because they think it is a male sport,” she frowned at the time.

“As soon as they have seen it their opinion changes massively because they see our skill level and they are actually, ‘Wait, you have a different approach to how we play but not like a massive step down from the men’.”

Two years later, how does current England Umbro ambassador Harrison feel women’s rugby has fared in stepping out from the shadows of the men’s game and standing up as a credible sport in its own right? “It has grown massively and we have got so many more people viewing,” she enthused.

“What is great about this Six Nations is it is on a different platform to the men so we are hoping it is not going to be compared. We are back-to-back champions and going for a third, people are going to start respecting us, supporting us, viewing us more and that is fantastic.

“I’m hoping because it is separate (from the weekends of the men’s tournament) and we are now getting seen on BBC, it is going to take that other step up and it will just stop this comparison between the men and women… we are raring to go now, we want the Six Nations.”

On the field, people will see Harrison take command. “I shout all the time,” she admitted when asked what her style of play at No10 is like. “Everyone literally says, ‘I can hear your voice’ and I’ll say, ‘Sorry’. I just shout at them all the time, I literally grab people sometimes if they aren’t listening to me and put them into place.

“It’s when I start to get stressy, not stressy but stuff comes out and I am like, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean that to come out’. I’m hoping they didn’t hear it but they probably have.”

Away from the furnace of a match, though, life is very much mundane. No different from the recent men’s Six Nations, the pandemic is impacting on preparations. “We have to stay in our rooms. We train together, have your meals together but you’re not allowed to stay in there for ages and you get restricted on time in meetings and stuff like that. It’s a very on-your-own-until-you-train sort of thing.

“We normally have roomies. I would normally share with Jess Breach all the time and it can now be very boring. We have had to find things to do on our own and it’s just annoying. Normally, we’d all go out after dinner, sit in the team room or somewhere and just socialise but you can’t do that now. We just have to wait until training.

“I play Xbox with a few of the other girls so we can listen to each other on our headsets and talk to each other. There’s nothing else to do. We play Call of Duty: Warzone. Let’s say we’re beginners. Abbie Ward normally does the tactics, I do the shooting, Poppy (Cleall) and Hannah (Botterman) just try and survive.

Harrison England

(Photo by Umbro)

“Hannah, she is the funniest person, she is fantastic. TikToks, me and Jess love a TikTok, we’re social media queens. That is all I have got for you,” added Harrison, who is hoping a hugely competitive Six Nations can help alleviate the disappointment felt by the postponement of this year’s World Cup in New Zealand until 2022.

We were really shocked because as far as we were concerned we were going to that World Cup and it was so out of the blue. One of the girls saw it on social media and it was a bit like, ‘Wait, what is this?’ We were in camp at the time and were all separate in our rooms and all of a sudden it is getting posted up on our group chat 30 minutes later from our manager telling us it is going to be postponed.

“I’m still disappointed and now we don’t know what we are going to do this summer, but our first focus is the Six Nations where the gap between teams will be closed. If you look at the Premiership this season, a lot of the girls in these other nations are coming to play in our league. Our league has taken a massive, massive step-up. Every game is competitive now and I’m hoping it does go into the Six Nations.”

  • Zoe Harrison is an ambassador for Umbro. For more information visit umbro.co.uk/rugby or follow @Umbro_Rugby on Instagram

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'I'm going to play for England one day, what are you going to do?': How Zoe Harrison dealt with her name-calling secondary school bullies

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