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House of Rugby

01st May 2019

England legend Rachel Burford on major challenge facing women’s rugby

Patrick McCarry

“You come to our games now and there are so many young girls that are playing or who want to get involved.”

Women’s sport is on a heady upward curve at present.

Performance and skill levels are increasing, there is greater investment, media coverage and fan involvement in a whole range of sports.

England won the Women’s World Cup in 2014 with the final taking place at the at Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris – home of Top 14 titans Stade Français – with a huge crowd in attendance. Four years earlier, England had been narrowly beaten by New Zealand in a sold-out Stoop.

Three years on, the World Cup final was played out – between the victorious Kiwis and England again – in front of 17,100 fans at Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium. One year on and the RFU handed out 28 professional contracts to its’ leading stars.

From the outside, looking in, women’s rugby is right up there with football as a team sport attracting and producing a lot of top female stars. Still, according to one of rugby’s top stars, there is still a ways to go.

Rachel Burford, who won that 2014 World Cup with England, joined host Alex Payne and England flanker James Haskell on JOE UK’s House of Rugby and gave a compelling insight to where the game is at, and where it needs to be.

The Harlequins and England centre started off by telling Payne and Haskell that the national team does not have its’ own kit-man (or kit-woman, for that matter) and that several perks attended to the men’s side are nowhere to be seen in the womens’ set-up.

“When I was growing up,” said Burford, “I was the only girl.

“The only reason we ended up having such a successful girls’ team is that my mum played, and my sister played, so my dad kind of engineered that to happen. But you go along to a rugby club now and (and underage levels) there are four or five girls in each side.

“And now there are Under 11s girls only now, as some of them don’t want to carry on playing with the boys when they are 12.

“When we were growing up, to me, it was all boys. The only other girls playing were my sisters, and my mum played. Us three.

“Now it is not like that, at rugby clubs. But the system is still the same, where you get to the age of 12 and stop playing with the boys. But you can also go earlier now, if you want to.

“But there used to be a big problem – and it is still a problem now – is that you’ll get some clubs that don’t have a girls team. Then they get to 12 and they have to leave the club. Some people don’t want to do that – 12 years old, don’t know anybody, don’t want to change clubs – and that’s where we lose them.”

It seems such a shame, and a waste of talent and potential, to foster a love of the game only to lose the player due to a lack of structures or opportunities to stay on.

It is something the RFU, and Burford in her own small way (she fronts a successful rugby academy, Burford 12), are trying to address.

There are clear signs of progress being made across the country but mountains of work, good will and determination are still required.

Every young girl encouraged to stay in the game could push on to be the next Katy Daley-McLean, Emily Scarratt, Jess Breach or Rachel Burford.

Subscribe here to JOE’s House of Rugby:

Episode 29 sees host Alex Payne joined by James Haskell and Rachel Burford to discuss women’s rugby, Sevens and Hask’s plan for a breakaway rugby players’ union.