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'Screams have agitated some older men saying, 'Can you be quiet?'

By Liam Heagney
England's Holly Aitchison takes a selfie with fans (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

There’s perhaps no one better placed than Gill Burns, the ex-England No8, to colourfully contrast the then and now in women’s rugby. It was 25 years ago when the national team she had represented with pride since 1988 first visited New Zealand. The catch? Every England player who travelled for that inaugural 1997 clash with the Black Ferns in Burham each had to pay £2,000 to cover their costs.

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Compare that pay-as-you-go, amateur-era situation to feature in a match that England lost 67-0 in front of a negligible attendance south of Christchurch with what is about to unfold this Saturday in Auckland – a sold-out World Cup final at Eden Park featuring a fully professional England team going up against the hosts who are also full-time athletes. For Burns, it’s nirvana.

Forget the frustration that her group of 40-or-so former players and acquaintances – old Red Roses and a host of former opponents, including some Americans from the great rival teams of the 1991 and 1994 World Cups – weren’t able to secure a block of seats together at Eden Park and are dispersed throughout the stadium. Instead, let’s celebrate that women’s rugby has been the hottest of hot tickets this week in New Zealand at the end of a tournament delayed a year due to the pandemic.

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It was ahead of the October 15 round two England pool match against France in Whangarei when Burns touched down on North Island, going on to enjoy the trip of a lifetime as a fan travelling around with Janice Byford, a former Red Rose teammate whom she hadn’t seen in about 20 years as her pal emigrated and now lives in Hawke’s Bay.

As soon as they met up their rapport was just like old times and the past week capped their wonderful adventure, rugby reminiscence on Monday at a Sky Tower tour followed by a few days on Waiheke Island before their return to Auckland to soak up every bit of the atmosphere in the lead-up to the eagerly awaited final. Burns and co also presented roses to the entire England squad.

Interspersed with all hectic activity was a half-hour breakfast chat with RugbyPass in which Burns quickly nailed her colours to the mast: With the next World Cup set to be hosted by England in 2025, she reckoned the best outcome for the sport would be a win for Simon Middleton’s team. “It’s really important that England win to tell the world that professional women’s rugby is what it is all about,” she explained.

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“I know other teams – New Zealand, France – have become professional but the fact that England have been ahead of the other nations, it is really important to tell all of the rugby unions around the world that it is the way to go, to make their women’s teams professional to improve the standard of the tournament.

“If England are the champions – and I truly believe and hope they will be – it couldn’t be a better run into 2025, the reigning world champions hosting the tournament which will be the biggest and best ever. What a way to inspire youngsters and I don’t just mean young girls, I mean youngsters across the board to get involved, to come and support, to play touch rugby, tag rugby – any version of the game.

“That is how people will learn to appreciate and understand the game a little more, playing the non-contact versions and therefore the full contact version will grow accordingly because more people will understand, follow and become fans.”

The World Rugby hall of famer adores how England go about their business. “Those hours after the games where the players stay and engage with the fans, take the selfies, sign the flags, talk to these people, it is just going to grow and grow. The fact the players invest in the crowd, the crowd really feels they do know the girls that are playing and that can only help to grow the game quicker,” she said, going on to explain what she feels makes them such a treat to watch play.

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“It’s that strength in depth. Yes, it is really sad when world-class players are injured and miss out but the girls who step into the place are still world-class. That is the difference between the England squad and other nations. They have a great belief and are quietly composed. You can’t get a better group of senior players who give the others the knowledge and the wisdom to share that coolness.

“You have got to pick out Sarah Hunter. What an awesome captain she is, the ultimate England sporting ambassador, and you can tell she puts her heart and soul into it. She never ever has a bad game. She is always absolutely on top form and it is because of the professional attitude that she had long before they were paid any money. She has had that professional attitude since she first wore the jersey.

“It’s a great pleasure to see her develop and become the world icon that she is – and she is a lovely person too which does help. She comes across so well and certainly is that role model that those of us who played 30 years ago didn’t have. Our role models were the fellas, who were great role models, but more girls might take up the game now they have got people like Sarah Hunter, Emily Scarrett and Marlie Packer to inspire them.”

Burns has done her own fair share of inspiring while in New Zealand. After Hunter made her record 138th appearance in the quarter-finals versus Australia, she was present at the team hotel for the capping ceremony along with Karen Almond and Paula George, fellow trail-blazers from the 1990s.

That interaction, which followed up the visit to the England camp a year ago with the missing inaugural World Cup trophy that had been found in an old administrator’s loft, brought home to the fully professional class of 2022 how privileged they are.

“One of the girls said to me, ‘My god, I never engaged my brain to think that the pathway I had wasn’t the one you all had before me. I have been a good schoolgirl rugby player and I have become a professional rugby player as an adult and I just didn’t know these stories’.

“For the last 12 months, I have probably been spoken to more about the history of the game than I was spoken to as England captain for five seasons. People now want to hear what went on.”

In the case of Burns, that England story is quite remarkable as it was by accident on a hockey field in Chester in 1987 that she was first invited to take up rugby at the age of 23. “I knocked someone over in a hockey match and thankfully the girl I knocked over was a rugby player,” she recalled. “She obstructed and I was running fast and ran into her, she fell to the floor, I dribbled through, scored a goal, turned around, picked her up and apologised to her for knocking her over.

“She said the way you play hockey you should be a rugby player. I thought she was being funny with me and I said, ‘I’m sorry but you obstructed me’. She said, ‘No, I’m not being funny. I play rugby and you should too because you are big and quick’. That was the best advice I ever had. The rest of that afternoon I was thinking about it as my dad had played rugby as a boy and was school captain and I just thought maybe I can give it a go.”

Burns caught up with her hockey opponent in the bar afterwards, learned that the Liverpool Collegiate club played out of Waterloo and the rest, as they say, is history. “I went along on the Sunday and when the captain saw someone who was nearly 6ft tall and quite athletic arriving she was quite pleased. As soon as my first training session, I knew I had found the sport for me. Less than a year later, on that very pitch at Waterloo, I played for England against Sweden on October 16, 1988.”

The extraordinary background to that friendly 34 years ago encapsulates how far the women’s game has now evolved at Test level. “The England-Sweden game was organised by me and my pals from Waterloo,” enthused Burns. “I played for North of England as a beginner having only played once, got picked up after the divisional championship. Being a 12-second 100-metre runner helped and I then became part of the England training group.

“At a session at Loughborough, one of the organisers said, ‘The Swedes want to play us in the autumn, would anyone like to organise the game?’ We volunteered. My ex-partner Steve had played for England Students and North of England men so he sort of knew the protocols of representative teams, so Steve and I between us basically organised that first match.

“Until I was singing the national anthem it didn’t hit home as I had been running around doing the organising until the day before, picking up the kit which we bought ourselves and jobs like that, making sure we had commissionaires on the door. We just pushed the boat out and did everything we could, had hand-drawn pictures on the front of the programme, phone calls all the time to the local press, just trying to do our best to share the joy of the game.

“It was literally when I was singing the anthem that it hit home, ‘My good grief, I’m playing for my country’. So I organised the first international I played in but I can assure you I wasn’t involved in the selection, somebody else picked me.”

That was the start of a stellar career that covered four World Cups and featured Burns skippering her country and also a Women’s World XV when it toured New Zealand. Now she is back in the home of the Black Ferns and lapping the rugby up as a fanatical fan. “It has been an amazing month being here and the whole atmosphere has been electric, a really lovely, positive, uplifting experience.

“The Whangarei stadium with its wonderful grass banks. I was privileged to play there once and the green banks were just green banks but this time they were absolutely filled with smiling, happy people appreciating good rugby.

“The screams, the slightly higher pitch of the enthusiasm of the crowd, have agitated some older men saying, ‘Oh, can you be quiet? We’re trying to watch the rugby’. But that is not what the girls who are playing need, it’s the excitement of all the people in the crowd that has made it special.”

So too the progress of an England team that Burns has a personal connection with. She was a PE teacher for 32 years, mostly at Range High School in Formby, and it was there where Holly Aitchison, who will wear the No12 jersey at Eden Park, first picked up the sport along with Sarah Beckett, who cruelly missed out on World Cup squad selection.

“Holly and Sarah played on the pitch at Twickenham twice in the national girls’ rugby finals. You’d like to think that had something to do with their strength and resilience and being able to learn to come second with grace and accept there are some things to get better. My word have they both improved – and let’s hope Holly can step up on Saturday.”

  • Gill Burns MBE is a former England captain and an ambassador for Wooden Spoon, the children’s charity of rugby. “I’m on the Merseyside committee and we run a big annual lunch, but what we also do is little dos at junior clubs where you can raise the odd thousand pounds and it all adds up. The important thing is it gets Wooden Spoon out into the rugby community and the charity is doing great work for disadvantaged children and children with disabilities. It’s a super charity and I have been privileged to see some of the projects that have provided children opportunities to have a better quality of life.”

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