Running the burger vans: The negotiations to establish Saracens Women
Former England captain and founding member of Saracens Women Emma Mitchell, regarded as one of the most talented scrum-halves to have played the game, recalls the deal that was struck to establish a women’s side in north London over 30 years ago.
Mitchell tells the entertaining story of how the club she played at for 15 years came to be, why it wasn’t all smooth sailing at the beginning and how the founding journey came full circle.
“When I left Loughborough in 1987 there weren’t that many clubs, so myself and three other Loughborough graduates set up a side in Kent,” remembers Mitchell.
“I ended up living in London and about nine of us got together and decided that London could do with another club, there was only Wasps and Finchley at the time, which later moved to Richmond.
“We were looking at trying to establish a club in north London and Saracens was the obvious choice, plus they were about to come back into the first division. There was a chap called John Heggadon who was ahead of his time in supporting the women’s game and he encouraged us to put a proposal together and send it to the Saracens committee which we did.
“He turned up at the committee meeting and this women’s proposal wasn’t on the agenda and he was quite frustrated with us and called to ask why we hadn’t sent it in, and we said we had. It turns out the secretary at the time had read the proposal and made a unilateral decision that women either don’t or shouldn’t play rugby so tore it up and put it in the bin and so it’s only that we had someone in the committee who knew it was supposed to be coming on the agenda which made it happen.
“We were then invited to deliver a presentation and the committee came back and said they would like to support us in setting up a women’s section at Saracens, but there were three conditions, one is that on Saturdays and Sundays we had to run the club shop selling socks and shorts, two, on men’s match days we had to help with running the bar, manning the burger vans and staffing the turnstiles and three, at Vice President lunches which happened twice a year, we had to provide the waitressing staff.
“So, we said ‘brilliant, yes absolutely we’ll do all of that,’ and very quickly we established ourselves. It was the sort of price you had to pay in those days to get through the door. It turns out we had both the Welsh and the English captains serving lunches to the Vice Presidents!
— Emma Mitchell (@emmamit09) April 11, 2019
“A nice little end to the story, is that by 2009, 20 years on, there were three of us founder members who were made honorary Vice Presidents of Saracens and the President at the time Lee Adamson made a wonderful speech telling the same story and how it was his pleasure to actually serve us our lunch on that day and how it had come full circle, which was very touching.”
A veteran of four World Cups, Mitchell also helped shape the international landscape in the early days, as well as England’s club game.
“What’s worth remembering is that in the 1991 final, the USA beat us and beat us well and gave us lessons to learn on how we needed to play and develop as a team. The bulk of that 1991 side committed to stay together and worked really hard in the intervening three years, so there was quite a nice journey between 1991 and 1994 which saw us deliver a fantastic performance and lift the World Cup trophy, which was really rewarding.
“In 1998 we were defending champions and went out in the semi-finals to New Zealand. Earlier in the tournament captain Gill Burnes had a bad ankle injury and I stepped in as vice-captain, I think it was England’s worse ever finish at a World Cup to date, but I was still proud.
“Between 1998 and 2002 I suffered an ACL injury and was out for a good year and coming back it was quite different for me. I knew I was going to retire after the 2002 tournament and it was much more about trying to get back into the squad.
“Jo Yapp was the number one scrum half at the time. In 1998 she was a young teenager, and I was the number one nine and then we kind of switched so come 2002, she was first choice and I was her backup. I was just really glad to be able to sign off on my terms. My last game was the semi-final win over Canada, and we lost in the final to New Zealand.”
World Rugby has only recently recognised the 1991 and 1994 World Cups, and Mitchell recalls what it felt like as a player.
“It was frustrating. The 1994 World Cup was originally meant to be in Holland, but it was in the January that the IRB (now World Rugby) said they weren’t going to support the tournament which led to the Netherlands withdrawing. Up in Scotland, a handful of players said they’d organise it and in a matter of weeks, they’d set up the 1994 World Cup and all the countries committed to going to it.
“The shame was that New Zealand didn’t come and what I understand is that the New Zealand players wanted to come unofficially but weren’t allowed. They then went into the wilderness for a few years and didn’t emerge until the Canada Cup in 1996. From 1991-96 the Black Ferns weren’t really seen, so things have certainly changed in terms of how the unions view and support the women’s game.”
Mitchell formed a formidable partnership at half-back with another hugely influential England player Karen Almond, with the team reaching the 1991 and 1994 World Cup finals under their influence.
“It was great timing as Karen changed clubs from Wasps to Saracens in 1992 so we played our club rugby together and that was really good for us going into the 1994 World Cup.
“We got so used to how each other played and what we needed from each other. No matter what pass I threw out at her she’d pick it up and do something brilliant. We used to work hard on our communication about what sort of pass she needed from me and how she’d communicate that with hand signals.
“It’s lovely that when we went through and worked out the Red Rose numbers she was in that first side in 1987 to play Wales and that squad was listed alphabetically so she became Red Rose number one and that’s so fitting because she really was the player that set the bar for all of us.”
RFU make two new appointments in performance roles ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) January 11, 2022
Emma’s career off the field has seen her work in academic publishing and most recently as a Performance Lifestyle Advisor for the English Institute of Sport for 14 years, where she coached Great Britain Hockey players off the field, organising future career opportunities and helping them through international retirement, as well as supporting their holistic development.
Mitchell has recently returned to the Rugby Football Union where she has been appointed as a Performance Consultant for the women’s game.
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