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Rachael Burford: ‘I haven’t been emotional yet but I will be’

By Liam Heagney
Rachael Burford on England duty in 2017 (Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

What perfect timing. On Thursday, Rachael Burford was unveiled in central London as one of the 10 founder members of the Global Rugby Players Association, the charity aiming to help assist players crossover into the rugby afterlife.

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This Sunday, she will begin her own transition away from playing as Harlequins’ Premiership Women’s Rugby fixture versus Trailfinders at The Stoop heralds her final appearance in the midfield just 11 weeks before her 38th birthday.

The farewell emotions hadn’t hit when she pulled up a chair to chat with RugbyPass after a function where she shared a stage with the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Conrad Smith to name just two of the rugby glitterati that had assembled to launch a foundation that has George Gregan as chair of the trustees board.

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Former England player Rachael Burford dines on vegemite & chip sandwich atop Mount Eden | Sam Smith Reports | Rugby World Cup 2021

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Former England player Rachael Burford dines on vegemite & chip sandwich atop Mount Eden | Sam Smith Reports | Rugby World Cup 2021

“I haven’t been emotional this week yet but I think I will be,” she admitted. “My family are going to be there. It’s one thing to keep saying, ‘Yeah, it’s my last game, it’s my last game’ and then when the whistle blows or I come off the pitch before the end of the game that is it.

“That will hit me and I have had loads of reflection this week. The game has really given me so much. Not just winning games or being part of Rugby World Cups. It’s everything else around it and the journey that I have been on.

“I feel so incredibly grateful for what the game has given me and really excited to continue to give back to the game post-playing as well, but I think there will be some tears shared.”

It will be only natural for the tears to flow given the stellar CV that Burford has accumulated over the years as a 2014 World Cup winner with more than 80 England caps having started in the humble rugby surrounds of Henley in 2004. She knows how fortunate she has been.

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“If we go back to the first World Cup in 1991, the stories I hear from the players back then. They were picking up the opposition, sharing a house together so that they could play a fixture the next day. Personal sacrifices. During World Cup years I would always move back home so that I didn’t have to pay rent.

“I could afford to reduce some hours at work and then be able to train more and commit my time to training as opposed to working. The game is moving forward. There is still work to the done but for the game to be moving in that professional era, a hell of a lot of sacrifices from a number of different generations have taken place in order to get it to what it is today.”

As it stands, women’s rugby is just 14 months out from the start of its next World Cup, a tournament hosted by England that promises to be an event like no other. Burford can’t wait. “Huge amount of excitement.

“The game is moving at such a rapid pace and what we witnessed over the previous World Cups and then to bring it home and be here on English soil where the game is really strong domestically and internationally and what it can have is that catalyst effect around the globe, there is a big, big buzz.

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“What has been super exciting is the RFU put a statement out, they want to sell out Twickenham and that is their goal for the final. Everyone is kind of like, ‘We are 100 per cent going to hit that because of what has already happened’. That excitement for the players, for the fans is really a good place to be.

“I feel incredibly proud of where the game has got to and the support from everybody involved… everybody has shared responsibility to grow the game and this foundation is another step in the right direction of parity and working together and sharing experiences.

“I feel incredibly proud of where the game is today to where I started. There wasn’t a lot of crossover and there wasn’t a lot of support from the men’s game and it’s great to see that change.”

With England fresh from completing another Guinness Six Nations Grand Slam campaign and installed as World Cup favourites, you imagine that Burford would love to be a few years younger rather than hanging up the boots in her late 30s. “I guess so,” she agreed.

“I have been really fortunate for my career and the path that I have gone through. Every year the game has evolved, there is more opportunity for growth, the growth is bigger and any player would want a piece of that, being English and having a World Cup on home soil. I did play in 2010 (when England last hosted) but I’m equally happy to be cheering on the sidelines as well.”

There will be plenty of time for career reflections after Sunday. Off the top of her head, though, is there one standout that sums it all up?

“One moment? That’s so tough. It would have to be 2014, winning the World Cup. Having gone to two World Cups and fallen short, to then win it was a moment, a piece of history that can never get taken away from that squad.

“We will always have that connection together which makes it even more special than just saying you are a World Cup winner. Actually it’s something a lot deeper rooted than that.”

The great news is that Burford won’t disappear from the sport after Sunday’s final whistle blows at Harlequins as she is already working in rugby administration.

“I work for International Rugby Players as head of women’s rugby, so working with all the member player associations and the international game, closely working with World Rugby and member bodies to continue to drive the standards in the women’s game off the pitch and on it.”

How cool is it that the wealth of experience she has will stay in the sport? “That’s such a big thing and I kind of stumbled across it. It wasn’t like I knew that was where I was going to go.

“We have lost so many incredible players who have so many brilliant assets that they can apply, whether to the game or into business that then could maybe come back into the game. The foundation can harness that, which is an exciting prospect that we can keep hold of these great people who are in our game.”

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Turlough 1 hours ago
'Let them keep talking' - Mike Catt claps back over Bok remarks

“You want that – not hatred – but whatever it is that stirs it all up. It’s good.” Agree with this. If you can put a common motivating idea in all your players heads during a game it can produce a real Team perfromance. Erasmus is pretty expert at this. It is quite clear that the comments by Etzebeth, Allende and others were not coincidence and were actioned to create animoisty before the series in order to galvanise the South African mind set. While I understand it, I don’t like it. They result in unnessary vitriol between supporters and for what? I don’t think any of the SA players seriously believe any of these claims and with Ireland ignoring them Erasmus won’t get the escalation he seeks. The vitriol shown by some SA and indeed NZ supporters is extremely weird for NH supporters (OK, maybe England have felt it) but it just feels very odd over a sport. Ireland were more or less sh1t for the first 100 years of their rugby, they have improved significantly in the last 25 to be in a position around now (it may not last) to go into a match with the big guns with a real shot of winning. The reaction to this from some SH supporters has been bizarre with conspiracy theories of ‘Arrogance’ fueling abuse from supporters and even NZ players to Irish crowds during the world cup. I love International rugby and the comraderie between supporters. I genuinely dread and dislike the atmosphere around games with the southern giants. They take this very personally. NH teams: play them, try and beat them, enjoy the craic with their players and supporters and wish them well. SH teams wish them well and they call you arrogant in the press months later. Its just a matter of try and beat them and then good riddance til the next time.

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