Rachael Burford: 2021 is the year for women's rugby
2021 is set to be a monumental year for women’s rugby. We have the Women’s Six Nations in February, Sevens at the Olympics this summer, and then the biggest event of all: Rugby World Cup 2021. It’s a great time to start a column about women’s rugby, and I hope to bring my experience in both the grassroots and elite game to my biweekly articles. I have played elite rugby and premiership rugby for over ten years in England, and I now run Girls Rugby Club, an international pathway and platform to connect the 2.7 million girls who play rugby globally.
I want to use this column to tackle the biggest issues in both grassroots and elite women’s rugby, and bring things to the attention of those who might not realise the dedication of the women and girls who play rugby, and the challenges they face on and off the pitch.
I started playing rugby when I was just six years old, and I have had an incredible career, including playing in four Rugby World Cups: 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2017, and two Sevens World Cups in 2009 and 2013.
I’ve played for England both before and after professional contracts were introduced. Professionalism started in 2014, when the women’s Sevens side received full-time contracts until 2016, in the run-up to the Rio Olympic Games. Then, the England Women’s 15s side was granted professional contracts for one year (between September 2016 and August 2017) in the run up to the 2017 Rugby World Cup. At this time, the Sevens players also had part-time contracts. Following the 2017 Rugby World Cup the 15s contracts ended, but the Sevens players got full-time contracts.
Then, in a landmark moment for women’s rugby, England Rugby granted 28 full-time contracts, and seven part-time contracts, to the England Women’s 15s squad in January 2019, while the Sevens players remained on their full-time contracts. For over ten years, I’ve been there for the highs and lows of elite women’s rugby in England, and I’m excited for what the next year holds.
As every year does, we start with the Women’s Six Nations tournament. There has been some speculation that the Women’s Six Nations won’t go ahead, but in my opinion it will, because there are Rugby World Cup qualifier games that need to take place for Ireland, Scotland and Italy. They might have to move the fixtures to April, but I’m in no doubt that they will go ahead somehow, as we want teams to play for the opportunity to compete at the Rugby World Cup, and not let it be decided by current rankings. It will be a really important tournament to build up momentum for women’s rugby at the start of this year, to grow the fanbase before the Rugby World Cup.
England will be aiming for a Grand Slam win of course, and if they win it will be their third in a row. But I doubt that’s even on the minds of the players. Instead, they will be thinking about each game as it comes, and trying to build on past performance. The Six Nations could be the last opportunity for each player to make their mark on the team, and put their hand up as someone who wants a place in the World Cup squad, if there are no friendlies before the Rugby World Cup.
Every player will be aware of that and will want to give their absolute best performance. When I was on the lead up to Rugby World Cups, I would countdown each game I had left before the World Cup started, as I saw every second in games and training as an opportunity to prove I deserved a place in the team. The team will be aware that they have five games to play before the Rugby World Cup, and the excitement will build the closer they get to the tournament.
England have traditionally had a really strong balance of both experienced and young, fresh talent in the squad, but the scales are now turning more to the younger players. That might sound worrying for fans, but the England squad is definitely in good hands. Players like Zoe Harrison and Helena Rowland are both coming in at fly-half, and both are so young and talented. It’s scary how young they are, Zoe is 22 and Helena is just 21, yet both are stars to watch on the pitch. Helena has made her mark in 15s and Sevens, and may also play for Team GB at the Olympics this summer.
Katy Daley-McLean has just retired from her spot at fly-half, so there are big boots to fill for both Zoe and Helena, but I have no doubt they will rise to it. Are they there yet? Probably not, but if the younger players were smart, as I’m sure they were, they would have used every opportunity to learn from Katy. She is such a student of the game and she always wants to help people understand rugby the way she does.
I actually wonder whether England should employ Katy Daley-McLean as a mentor for the fly-halves coming through before the Rugby World Cup, as she has so much experience in that position. They’ve done it in the men’s game, Dylan Hartley has done some work with the hookers, and Jonny Wilkinson still works with the kickers. It would be great if Katy could come back and impart some of her wisdom on to the fly-halves coming through.
The advantage that the younger girls have is that they are so fearless. They don’t know what it’s like to play at a Rugby World Cup, but that might actually work in their favour, because they are not fearful of facing opponents like New Zealand. When you prepare for a Rugby World Cup, you just have to focus on you and what you do best, which is the best way to be. In 2014 I think we really mastered that. The team went into a ‘bubble’, before ‘bubbles’ were even a thing! We limited the outside distractions we had to an absolute minimum, and just focused on our game and team. We had such unity and clarity in the squad: we were on a mission to win the Rugby World Cup and that’s exactly what we did. I remember at half time in the final against Canada, we all looked at each other, and I just felt this enormous sense of control. Anything they did, we knew exactly how to respond.
We won that game 21-9 and it was simply the best feeling ever. That culture we had developed of focus, determination and spirit translated into our game and we were focused until the final whistle. Then, we celebrated. All of our hard work and years of training had resulted in a Rugby World Cup winners medal. It felt magical!
In the 2017 final, we just let the game slip away from us. We had a hold of the game at first, and I remember watching Lydia Thompson score a try in the first half and feeling confident. It was such a high-scoring game, but eventually the whistle blew, and New Zealand celebrated a 41-32 win. We were utterly gutted. We had sacrificed so much to get there. We were on temporary full-time professional contracts that we knew would be up at the end of the tournament.
Since then, women’s rugby has grown at an incredible pace. I’ve watched first-hand as the audiences for our games get bigger and bigger. Last Autumn, the England v France games on BBC Two reached a peak audience of 800,000. People have started to watch women’s rugby on mainstream, prime time television. The game is just getting bigger and bigger, and 2021 is going to be a really exciting year for the sport.
Before the Rugby World Cup, we have Sevens at The Olympic Games, which will be another great way to showcase women’s rugby. Sevens is a whole different world and everything about the game is a whirlwind. It’s a faster game with quick tries, which means that it is great for spectators. I can imagine young people watching it and rushing down to their local rugby club to sign up. The effects that having the Six Nations, the Women’s Six Nations, a Rugby World Cup and Sevens on television this year will be phenomenal for grassroots rugby – both boys and girls. That’s not to forget the British and Irish Lions tour either. On that note, I hope that one day soon, there will be a women’s British and Irish Lions tour. It would be a great advert for the women’s game!
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This exciting year of rugby has come at the right time too, as grassroots players have dropped off since the coronavirus pandemic. All the women’s rugby on television this year will have a really positive impact on the grassroots game, I have no doubt. I always say: ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t believe it, you can’t be it.’ Young girls now have role models to look up to in women’s rugby, and the platform it will been given in 2021 is phenomenal. Whatever obstacles 2020 may have put in the way for women’s rugby, 2021 is here to surpass them all. It’s an exciting, jam-packed year of women’s rugby, and I can’t wait to write about it.
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