Both women’s rugby internationals I have witnessed in the flesh have been staged at the Twickenham Stoop.
Three years ago, the atmosphere was special, and the place rocking nearly an hour before kick-off, when New Zealand prevailed by the margin of 13-10 over England in the 2010 Rugby World Cup Final, in front of a world record attendance for a women’s international of 13,253 and – it testifies on Wikipedia, so it must be true – a ‘live’ television audience of half a million in 127 countries.
In a distinct echo of the men’s game, New Zealand were overwhelming favourites that day but, boosted by a combination of home advantage and the boisterous crowd, England really got stuck in.
For the bulk of the match it genuinely seemed as if the outcome was in the balance, but in the end – tantalisingly – the Kiwis just took the spoils.
At the final whistle England were left shattered – on their knees, physically and emotionally drained. Okay, yes, and the tears flowed freely. The roaring acclaim for their part in a terrific contest rolling down from the stands was hollow compensation. After playing out of their skins, and staying within touching distance of victory for so long, all they would have to boast of in their dotage was a sense of frustration and a ‘plucky loser’ tag.
Last night’s example was the second of England Women’s autumn internationals and their second win. The essential facts are that England went in at the break 20-3 to the good and posted another 9 unanswered points in the second-half.
Fly-half and captain Katy Maclean kicked 17 points for the home side, whilst winger Lydia Thompson and prop Sophie Hemmings (twice) scored tries.
Canada’s only points came from an early well-struck penalty by fly-half Jackie Titley.
The National Rust is not an organ of record and this is not a match report in the traditional sense – more a personal impression.
Some feminists and sporty female readers might regard me as old-fashioned and/or chauvinistic. I might even surprise them and plead guilty as charged.
However, in watching women’s sport, I cannot help dividing it into firstly, those activities which major on featuring attributes and skills that specifically suit the female form and temperament – for example, the beam and ‘floor’ in gymnastics (the latter set to music, of course), ice dancing and netball – and secondly, those which are essentially male sports, now also played by women.
Rugby comes in the latter category.
Ten or more years ago, when – accompanied by either male or female companions – I occasionally set eyes upon what passed for elite women’s club rugby, sometimes staged at a male club venue after a Premiership match, it was a relative novelty.
It sat squarely within the category memorably established by Samuel Johnson, reacting when Boswell told him he had seen a woman preach at a Quaker meeting: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
The mischievous banter in the crowd divided along gender lines. We men tended to quip about enjoying a collective perve and the supposed attractions of beholding women wrestling in mud, whilst the females took delight in scoffing at the barrel-like figures of the props.
The skills on display were largely rudimentary. Some female players were speedy runners and dodgers, but many were not. Physical contact was on view, but not excessively aggressive. There was little combination, in terms of team play. Such passing as occurred was primitive and ‘girly’ – the ball was shovelled down the line in a series of hoiks into the air which, as often as not, went nowhere near – or was immediately spilled by – the intended recipient.
In short, in those days women’s rugby was a whole different ball game.
In comparison, in 2013, as vividly demonstrated last night, the women’s version has taken a seven-league leap forward. The England squad, even the tight five forwards, looked lithe and glowingly fit, irrespective of size. They warmed up and prepared for the game in similar style to the men.
They had smart kit – training gear, tracksuit tops, the latest ‘England’ strip, brightly-coloured boots – and a posse of coaches, physios, water-carriers on hand.
Both teams were well-drilled and the physicality of last night’s match was impressive. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the speed, skills and effort on display would have graced a male Under 18 schools 1st XV or club side.
These are serious athletes, playing a serious game. The passes were slick, most of them classic spin passes, mostly fired out perfectly for the receiver to run onto them. The tackling was resolutely fierce, the rucking and mauling unforgiving. Despite the 29 point margin, it was a ‘no quarter given or asked’ affair for the full eighty minutes and very well-received by a crowd I estimated as north of 3,000.
One thing I noted (as a nod to femininity) was that many players on both sides wore their hair long or longish.
In consequence, at various pauses or stoppages in play, there was quite a bit of re-adjusting the hair, and re-twizzling or tightening it, before using the band to secure it again.
In the pre-professional rugby era, players such as England back-row forward Mickey ‘The Munch’ Skinner used to joke about his peers being the ‘piano-shifters’ and the backs being ‘the girls’, who spent more time tending their hair than doing anything so vulgar as getting their kit dirty or tackling.
As I wrote earlier, elite women’s rugby has come a long way in the last decade but at least (for the sexists amongst us), both backs and forwards spend due time tending to their hair.
That said, in concluding, I repeat my original contention.
Rugby is not a women’s game. It’s a men’s game, now also played by women. Frankly, since there is no difference in the manner, tactics and approach with which the genders now play it at elite level, if offered the chance to choose one or the other, I would always opt to watch the male version.