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Zoe Harrison: 'Rugby is a sport for anyone, you don't have to fit any stereotype.'

By Owain Jones
EXETER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31: Zoe Harrison of England prepares to take a penalty kick during the Autumn International match between England Red Roses and New Zealand at Sandy Park on October 31, 2021 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Jonny Wilkinson had played with a red rose on his chest 53 times at the age of 24, when he lifted the Webb Ellis Cup.


Were Zoe Harrison, the same age, and England’s starting 10 to do the same, she would be making her 45th appearance.

When reminded of these uncanny parallels, the Tring-born playmaker lets out a hearty laugh and tells this writer to ‘behave’.

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For a player who has been labelled as having the ‘best kicking game in the world’ by her coach Simon Middleton, Harrison, however, isn’t one for straight-batting the fact she’s desperate to follow an English icon, by kicking England to World Cup glory in 36 days. “I don’t think I’ll have any words coming out of my mouth if I lift that trophy,” she says. “It’s what I’ve dreamt of since I was a young girl. I want to inspire the next generation and back up what the Lionesses have done.”

Mention of the Lionesses is noteworthy, given the exponential rise of women’s sport in recent years.

Whether she’s a role model for the next generation, given she’s of such tender years, is a moot point, but she knows the impact of having stars to look up to and doesn’t mind piggy-backing on the enormous platform given to the men’s game, to lift women’s sport still further. “When the Euros were on and Ben Chilwell and Mason Mount were wearing Lionesses tops, that was fantastic. Hopefully we’ll see the same from some of the England men’s squad. I know a few of the girls did get private messages and I’ve certainly had messages from the Sarries boys, because they come and cheer us on whenever we’re playing at the StoneX.”

Such aspirations seemed a long away when she was often the only girl traipsing along to training as a pre-teen in Hertfordshire. Such was the dearth of options, she was forced to move clubs, heading to Welwyn Garden City, and a 1hr 40min round trip, just to keep developing in the game she loved. “I went back to Tring recently, and the girls had amalgamated with nearby Aylesbury. There are just so many more options compared to what I had decade ago. I attended some county trials the other day and they were running them at U12, U14, U16 and U18 level. We struggled to fill U15 and U18 squads back then.”

Zoe Harrison making a break against Ireland in the Six Nations (Photo by Mike Egerton/Getty Images)

Harrison, a gifted footballer at a young age, had to travel to the West Country realise her full potential, but she needed a little nudge from her biggest fan to take that extra leap. “I was petrified when I went to Hartpury, I didn’t want to go, but my mum signed me up because she had faith in me. We were a rugby family and she just knew I could it. Either that or she thought I was better suited to a BTEC course than A-Levels!”

Her time at Hartpury was transformative, as Harrison began to truly grasp the No 10 role and all its nuances, throwing herself into rugby full-time. “I had the best time of my life there and I’m grateful in retrospect. I remember seeing Scott (Bemand – England Women’s backs coach) who was down to do sessions with Ceri Large. I was about 16 and ran up to my teacher and said, ‘there’s an England coach out there, can I just go out and kick?’ He was like, ‘but you’re in a lesson, Zoe’, and I was like, ‘yeah, but I’m doing a B-TEC rugby, so off I went.”

I remember when coaches had us out on the pitch at 6.30am with hail smashing in our faces and they’re getting us to do bear crawls. You’re thinking, ‘I’d really rather not be doing this’.


Harrison as you can gather, is good company, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, but there have been times when her natural bonhomie have deserted her, and her mood has darkened. “I look back at those 6am alarm calls, when the coaches had us out on the pitch at 6.30am with hail smashing in our faces and they’re getting us to do bear crawls. You’re thinking, ‘I’d really rather not be doing this, I’d rather be in a warm bed’ but you grit your teeth.”

Harrison believes being tested, nonetheless, is what has given her the resolve to ride the highs and lows of professional rugby. “There are times in your career when you’re not having your greatest season, or you’re not getting on with you coach or things aren’t going your way, but you dig in.”
The one constant in her career, who has helped Harrison navigate the pitfalls of professionalism is Alex Austerberry, at Saracens, and Harrison fears the day when he is not at the end of the phone for moral support. “When I’ve been struggling, Alex has been incredible. I’ve known him since I was 14 and used to go out and meet him for one-to-sessions after school every Friday night. What’s great about having him as a sounding board is I can speak openly. It’s not just about on the pitch either, it’s off the pitch. I know I can pick up the phone to him. He cares about your normal life, checks up on you and your family. I know I can rely on him. If he ever leaves, I’d be like, ‘you’re not going mate, that’s not in the script, come back!’

Harrison has spent her formative years at Saracens, who have shaped her as a Test fly-half (Photo by Naomi Baker – RFU/Getty Images)

Harrison sounds like a coach’s dream, but Bemand has jokingly said she does hold grudges. Namely when he called an impromptu training session which meant she had to cancel a nail bar appointment with fellow Red Rose, Jess Breach. Harrison doesn’t deny it. “He tried to do it the other day, and I was like, ‘stop doing this’. I love a good nail bar recommendation. It’s funny because Gavin Henson was my brother’s favourite player, and I loved his ‘look good, play good motto.’”.

Harrison is part of a growing band of players, who says it’s time to embrace the myriad personalities in the game and stop suppressing them under the ‘team first’ motto, especially given the verbal bullying she encountered growing up. “I want to grow the game and show our personalities. When I was at school, because rugby was still in its infancy, and I’d get people saying, ‘oh you’re a man’, all that juvenile stuff. I had massive grief, and now I’m like, ‘you can play rugby and be a girly-girl’. I make no apologies for wearing dresses and getting my nails and lashes done. Rugby is a sport for anyone, you don’t have to fit any stereotype. To any of the girls out there, I’d tell them not to take notice of the haters. I dealt with the bullies by ignoring them. I had my girlfriends and knew who my friends were.”

I am desperate for other sides to improve. Even in a short period since they went professional, you can see and feel the difference on the pitch. It may not reflect in the scoreline just yet, but believe me, our opposition are improving.

With England hot favourites to lift the trophy for the third time, one wonders if the tag will weigh heavily on their shoulders, especially given they are currently on a world record 25 wins in a row. Harrison says this is definitely not the case. “We don’t think about any records unless they pop up on TV or Instagram. Our main focus is winning and getting that bloody trophy. That’s all we want.”

What Harrison does feel will be beneficial to the team, four years after going professional, is more competitive, one-score games. “We want more competition from other sides because it will keep the interest up and keep games on live TV. The fear is that, otherwise, it could get a bit boring for audience to watch. It’s the same for the England women’s football team. There’s not much interest if they’re beating Luxembourg 10-0, because most fans will say, ‘when are they playing the USA?’. That’s the game we all want to see. I am desperate for other sides to improve and even in a short period since they went professional, you can see and feel the difference on the pitch. It may not reflect in the score line yet, but believe me, our opposition are improving.”

Harrison feels that the Red Roses can act as role models for the next generation (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

As for her own game, Harrison says she is forever trying to push the dial as she seeks perfection. “I watch a lot of men’s rugby and for me, it’s trying to close the gap on how they play. That’s how I try to think. I am constantly trying to think how I can outfox another side. It’s game-management and Owen Farrell is the master.”

Already one of the best 10s in the world, Harrison says it’s those one percenters that will allow her to the next level. “It’s about improving all my skills. I don’t want to be one of the best, I want to be the best in five years. There’s obviously loads I need to work on such as going into contact area and better distribution because I’m the 10. I need to nail all elements of my game.”

In tournament rugby, you need a plan B or plan C, because, who knows, we could go down to 13 players? It’s going to be quite the journey.

In a matter of hours, Harrison will line-up against a Fiji side who have nothing to lose, and will not care a jot for big reputations. “Everyone knows France is looming but Fiji are going to be gunning for us. They’re going to be pumped. We know we have sharpen up our game, otherwise we’ll be caught out. In tournament rugby, you need a plan B or plan C, because, who knows, we could go down to 13 players? It’s going to be quite the journey.”
The whole of England will be behind Harrison and the Red Roses every step of the way. A nation expects.


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Shaylen 9 hours ago
Brumbies the best team in Australia but still nothing to show for it

The Brumbies have been the strongest side in Australia for a long time and that was down to their forwards and set piece which has always been good and has always been able to dominate their Australian counterparts. This year the lack of maul tries and also the lack of a stable scrum has been a real problem which was also something Nick alluded to in his article this week about the creaking brumbies tight five. Home advantage is key as you say and the Brumbies must find a way to score more bonus points. If the Brumbies are really serious about winning a title they need to do what Kiwi sides at the top do. They need to smash every Aus side with a bonus point at home while claiming losing bonus points in every game they lose and denying their rivals bonus points. In their 3 losses in NZ this year they were smashed. They only scored 60 tries which is middle of the road, their scrum came in at 73% which was one of the worst in the comp, tackle success at just 83% which was right at the bottom and in terms of metres, clean breaks, carries, offloads and rucks built they were in the middle plus they had the most yellows. They basically were just not dominant enough wile they can improve their discipline. They excelled at kicking and won plenty of lineout ball plus their rucks were secure at 97%. Not sure about turnovers but they weren’t bad there. They just need to be more clinical and give away less and they will give themselves the best chance to win the title.

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