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Zoe Harrison: 'People say ‘you don’t look like you play rugby.' What does that mean?'

By Lucy Lomax
Zoe Harrison of England celebrates with the players of the match award after the Autumn International match between England Red Roses and New Zealand at Sandy Park on October 31, 2021 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images )

As the women’s game continues to professionalise, the need for players to pursue interests outside of rugby is becoming increasingly encouraged and necessary.

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One player who has an awareness of the fact that rugby doesn’t last forever, is England and Saracens fly-half Zoe Harrison.

After an ACL injury back in February, which in her own words happened when she ‘saw a gap, got way too excited, threw out an outrageous step and just hit the deck,’ Harrison has experienced first-hand why diversifying the CV can only be a good thing.

Tearing your ACL is a serious injury with an average recovery window of nine months. A few months in, Harrison spoke to RugbyPass about how she’s coped with the injury and her pursuits away from the field.

“I’ve always been aware of having something to fall back on. I went to Middlesex University and have a degree in Sports Rehabilitation & Exercise. I’m always thinking ‘what can I do now and after rugby?’

“I’ve done coaching in the past and have been going into schools, so perhaps it’s being a PE teacher. I know that rugby will come to an end and it’ll come to an end faster than you think.”

Since March 2020, the 25-year-old has been an ambassador for The Mintridge Foundation, a charity which promotes positive mental health for young people and harnesses the power of sporting role models.

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“My role at Mintridge is about going into primary schools and getting younger kids involved in playing touch, but mainly it’s getting them to throw a ball about and actually hold a rugby ball.

“We often play games that you’d usually do with another ball but with a rugby ball instead to get them into rugby and aware of it. It’s not all about netball and hockey or other sports usually encouraged for girls.

“I love coaching and spreading the game. I didn’t play rugby at school and in my senior school I was the only girl who played rugby. It’s just about giving children the opportunity to play the sport and have some fun.”

The Saracen also took advantage of her enforced absence from the Women’s Six Nations to try her hand at something new, presenting an episode of ‘Recharged’, a new Six Nations round up series produced by Team Level.

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“I loved presenting the ‘Recharged’ programme. I was allowed a bit of free reign. Having me interviewing the crowd wasn’t actually meant to be a thing, but I knew the camera guy from before, so we walked through the stadium and he said ‘I’ll film you doing what you like,’ I picked up the microphone and just started talking to people. It ended up being quite funny!

“I love other sports, I’m very sporty. I don’t have a certain hobby, like I don’t paint. I just love watching sport on the TV, especially football and cricket, as well as F1.”

In her mid-twenties, there is still a lot of rugby left to be played for Harrison, with the number ten keen to use her platform to change perceptions in the sport she loves.

“The main message I try and get across and it’s a big thing for me, is that you can be a girly girl and play rugby. I don’t want young girls to be pushed out of sport because they don’t look a certain way or don’t see themselves as a tom boy. You can look any way you want and play any sport, whether that’s a team sport or weightlifting in the gym.

“When I’m out and people find out I play rugby they say ‘you don’t look like you play rugby’, I know what they’re hinting at, but I think what does that mean? What are you meant to look like?”

As women’s rugby bceomes seen by more and more people whether that’s through attendances in stadiums or through broadcasts and live streams, players such as England’s Holly Aitchison have opened up in the past about wanting to look their best on the pitch, a sentiment which Harrison agrees with.

“I don’t wear much makeup on the rugby field myself because if I sweat I don’t want to create spots for myself, but as soon as I’m off the pitch, I’m going out, I do my makeup, have my hair done, wear nice clothes, I’m straight to ZARA, it’s a normal girls life.

“Now that women’s sport has taken off, not just rugby, it’s about getting more girls involved and stereotypes will start to fade away.

“When I was younger, I was the only girl at my club at Tring, but now there’s clubs fielding three girls teams which is crazy and you’ll have such a big mix of girls in that. The more girls who play the more normal it becomes.”

With England winning a Grand Slam in this year’s Six Nations, ending with a world record crowd at Twickenham, Harrison was in the unfamiliar position of onlooker for the duration of the campaign. However, she maintains a positive outlook on her long-term recovery and return.

“Because the injury happened before the Six Nations camps started, I wasn’t in and around the squad, so it wasn’t as bad. I’d just played in a World Cup and since my first cap I’ve been at every tournament.

“I’d rather not have done my ACL and be playing but if I was going to do something this bad at any time, this is probably the best time. I just try and get on with it because other people missed out on the World Cup and other players missed the Six Nations.

“It’s tougher now the players have all come back to Saracens (after the Six Nations). I walked out to training the other day and lasted two minutes outside watching it.

Being at Saracens has been fine as there’s two other girls with ACL injuries and we’ve been a little bunch together. As horrible as it is, I don’t want anyone to ever do their ACL after what I’ve gone through, but it’s nice to be around other people who have the same injury.”

Harrison is still in the early stages of her return, coming up to almost three months post-surgery. However, her ACL is not the only thing she is rehabbing, using the time away from the pitch to correct a longer standing shoulder injury.

“There’s been a lot going on with rehab so I haven’t had time to stop and think (about the Six Nations).

“As soon as I was over the pain of an ACL injury I was in surgery with my shoulder. I was going to get it done at the end of the season but then did my ACL so this became the perfect time.

“I’ve felt busy, I’m rehabbing two things and I’m in Sarries more days than I was before. It’s only now that I think stuff might start kicking in for me.”

After a successful Six Nations championship for England which saw club teammate Aitchison step into the ten shirt and perform with aplomb, Harrison admits she hasn’t kept a close eye on the tournament.

“Holly has a different style to me, but I think we all have different styles (at ten), even Helena (Rowland) has a different style to the way I play.

“It’s great to have competition there for when I come back but at the moment it’s more focussing on myself to get back and not worrying about what other people have done, as it’s such a big injury.

“This is my first long time injury, I’ve never been out longer than three months. I feel like you’re bound to get hit with one in your career and this is my time to take the hit.”

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Bob Marler 250 days ago

It means you don’t look like Kwagga Smith or Franco Mostert.

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