Rachael Burford isn’t one for comparing women’s rugby to the men’s game. After all, it’s forever like comparing apples and oranges. However, one thing is certain. That winning a World Cup will be a life-changing experience if Eddie Jones’ men’s side can get the job done next Saturday in Yokohama versus South Africa.

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Burford knows from experience. It was five years ago in Paris when England’s women conquered the world and players who went to France as relative sports unknowns came home to embrace attention they never imagined getting.

“Initially there was a lot of coverage around it [the RWC win],” Burford told RugbyPass, thinking back to the balmy August Parisian evening when rivals Canada were beaten 21-9 at Stade Jean-Bouin eight days after the same two countries played out a 13-all draw in a pool-closing fixture. 

“People wanted to know about you and hear your stories, you got invited to a lot of great places and met a lot of good people and those relationships have continued now. I think about the amount of events I got invited to speak at, that was massive, doing public speaking. Now I do all of that away from the pitch career-wise, so it opened up new doors and new challenges for me that are still going strong today.”

On Tuesday night, for instance, the 33-year-old veteran of four women’s World Cup campaigns was part of the television coverage for the new RugbyX tournament that took place in London. Nice exposure for her at the end of a month where her academy is busy over the school half-term and she herself only recently returned to playing for table-topping Harlequins following a lengthy lay-off with hamstring surgery.     

(Continue reading below…)

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The bottom line is that after so many years of blood, sweat and tears trying to be the best she could be as an amateur, rugby is paying the bills despite the recent setback of her injury being a contributory factor to her not being included in the latest list of 28 players centrally contracted full-time by the RFU for 2019/20. 

“I have done so many different types of jobs,” she recalled. “I have been a multi-sport coach, a personal trainer, a sales assistant, a nanny, I worked part-time as a nanny during the 2010 World Cup just so that I could have the afternoons and evenings to myself. Just an array of stuff like that. 

“For the majority of my life my career was always rugby and I just did work to facilitate being a rugby player. It was worth it,” she said before explaining the decision surrounding the launch of her own rugby academy. “There was lots of worries initially. It was kind of, I needed to have something to help supplement being a full-time player because you never knew when you were going to get your next contract or you weren’t. 

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“I wanted to have something on the side and at the time I was doing it on my own and not really sure it was a jump for me to take. It just took a couple of people to actually believe in me and say, ‘Yes, I think the content is really good’. I just threw myself into it and now it has been a really good success.”

Burford is one of many role models for aspiring young girls growing up nowadays looking to get involved in the sport, a situation that simply didn’t exist when she first picked up the ball aged six and went on to spend 10 years learning the game at Medway.

Filling the void were the likes of Mickey Skinner, an early 90s bulwark on the England men’s scene. “I just remember watching as a young kid him making the crunch tackles,” she explained. “Dan Luger also visited my rugby club, but no women ever did. That is another factor, all the England girls are now big role models and they get out to all the clubs, work with schools and things like that to try and inspire the next generation.

“If you go back to when I was younger I didn’t really know what was going on in an international sense, never mind imagining the idea of it being full-time. That would have been quite remarkable. It is inspiring that more girls and women around the world and the country now see rugby can be a profession.

“It can be a full-time job it they want it to be. You now have this opportunity whereas if you rewind five years ago that would not have been the case. It is a great mindset and a great place to be. Hopefully, we can improve year on year.”

With it, some terrible sexist attitudes that surrounded the women’s game have been confronted and are being eradicated. “The classic one is always, ‘are you a hooker?’ That is just so out of date. Unbelievable. The difference? If you’re sat at a table and one bloke says it, it is actually the other people at the table who will say, ‘mate, that is not okay, that is not where the game is now’. 

“It is rare now that you hear it but it is still out there. They think they are cracking a joke and having a bit of banter, but it is really poor banter,” she explained, calling on those sceptical about women’s rugby to come and take in a Tyrrells Premier 15s match over the winer. 

“Come and challenge your own perception. Come down and see what is on offer. The skill level is actually always commented on compared to the men because it is a little higher – we don’t have that brute strength and speed, so we have to be a little bit better technically. 

“Just come and take an opportunity to challenge yourself in what you think women’s rugby is. Our skill levels have to be higher because you haven’t got 110-kilo players running around in our sport, using just brute strength to get through. 

“You have got to be a little more agile and a little more thinking on your feet. That side of it complements our game,” ventured the Harlequins skipper whose optimism for the success of the elite club league in England isn’t mirrored by her current outlook for the sport at Test level where there is a growing gap between certain countries.

“If we are honest the imbalance is already there,” she said. “If you look at Six Nations, England are very far ahead and that is not England’s responsibility to make other internationals in other unions to try and catch up and come up to speed with them. 

“Unions have to take responsibility for what they do in their domestic game and what they are doing with their international game. What we don’t want to do as a club [Harlequins] and as a country [England] is just sit still and wait. We want to keep pushing on and push the limits as much as we can.”

WATCH: The acclaimed RugbyPass documentary Saracens Women – Going Pro, which takes a behind the scenes look at their 2018/19 Tyrrells Premier 15s title defence

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