For most of us, throwing your full body weight into another human being, risking wholescale bruising, potential snapping of bones and knocking the last gasp of breath out of your body, would only be something you’d consider if your life depended on it. But for an elite few – namely the England Women’s Rugby Team – it’s just part and parcel of the sport that is their life and livelihood.
So on a warm, summer morning on a Hampshire rugby ground, it’s a privilege to watch these elite athletes in action. After a quick adjustment of a top knot and a friendly chat, bodies are wrestled to the ground, torsos twist as they dodge oncoming assaults, legs with barely believable muscle tone send balls searing across the pitch and if all else fails, players fend off opponents with a brutal palm to the face.
The sheer strength of the 28-person squad is impressive enough, not to mention the courage that comes with playing such a physical sport. Then there’s the years dedicated to training, the strict diets, the weeks spent on tour – sacrifices all made to make it to the top, which England Women have done in style. As current world number ones having won the 2014 World Cup, they’ve proved unbeatable in 2017, winning the Six Nations Championships in March and, last month, finally routing rugby powerhouses New Zealand for the first time in 16 years.
This year women’s sport is definitely having a moment. Last month the England cricket team won the World Cup while the England football team is, at time of press, in the semi-finals of the Women’s Euro 2017. And now it’s the turn of the Red Roses who were only awarded professional paid contracts this January.
Prior to that, most of the team had full-time jobs (and in the case of Emma Croker, who retired last November, small children to care for too). While the contracts will end after this World Cup (some players will continue on seven-a-side contracts), this meant they could take a break from their careers – from plumbers to PE teachers – to train full time, like their male counterparts.
“They are the representation of modern womanhood,” says Kate Rowan, The Telegraph’s women’s rugby correspondent, of how the squad have struck a challenging work/sport balance. Certainly that image – coupled with the generational shift towards fitness and body positive campaigns like This Girl Can – is helping to power women’s rugby onto a national stage.
According to the Rugby Football Union (RFU), England’s 2014 World Cup victory helped boost women’s participation in the game by over 70%. In fact, demand for the game is so high, says Rowan, that for the upcoming World Cup they’ve had to increase ticket numbers, resulting in an “unprecedented” capacity of over 16,000 per game. Among the players who’ll be on that pitch are captain Sarah Hunter, Vicky Fleetwood, Katy McLean and Rochelle Clark.
Here, Stylist talks to the women determined to take England to victory.
Vicky Fleetwood, Hooker
Once the UK’s no 1 junior hurdler, hooker Vicky Fleetwood, 27, switched to rugby at 14 and made her Red Roses debut aged 21
What drew you to rugby as a teenager?
I wanted to move to a team sport, and it was a good way of venting my aggression, especially at that age – you’re still trying to find your feet and what it is you might succeed in. Also I’ve got a twin brother and he’d played from 11 years old – I wanted to do the same things as him. My college [Hinckley’s JCC and Mount Grace in Leicester] is well-known for being a rugby school, and [England player] Manu Tuilagi went there. But there was a huge influx of girls wanting to do it, too – I remember at our first training session there were 50 girls.
What particular skills do you need for your position?
You’ve got to be quite powerful because you’re in the scrum – in the front row, head on head with other people. And personally, I like to play a fast game. Plus, you’ve also got to throw the ball [back into play in the line out], so that’s an important skill.
You’ve got a black eye from training – has that side of the game ever bothered you?
I’ve never really given it a second thought. It’s the same with any sport – you see people pulling hamstrings and rolling ankles in athletics. My boyfriend thinks, ‘What if people think I’ve punched you?’ But it’s not really an issue. People walking down the street might look at you a bit strange, but everyone I socialise with knows that I play rugby, so it’s just one of those things.
There used to be a lot of lazy stereotyping that you couldn’t be feminine and be a rugby player and that it’s too ‘dangerous’ for women. Are we past that now?
I think it’s something more women want to do because there’s more emphasis on being strong and fit. You can tackle someone and wear mascara. And it’s empowering to say you can do that. Even when I’m training I’ll put make-up on because it makes me feel better.
So you’re noticing more focus on stronger, healthier female bodies in the media?
There’s been a big shift. When I was younger, you’d always see skinny girls in magazines. There was nothing about toned, muscular, strong women. As someone who played sport, my physique was different and I definitely struggled with that. Now, I feel a lot more body confident, and a lot of the girls say the same. We’re about being healthy, strong and fit and it’s probably one of the sports where you see a vast body range. Whatever your strengths, you can fit into the mix.
Do you feel like there is an emphasis on being a good role model?
We want to portray a good sense of what we do and encourage younger girls to pick up the sport and grow the game. A lot of girls watch our games so we stay around at the end to chat and sign autographs in the hope that one day they could be doing what we do.
Katy McLean, Fly half
South Shields-born Katy McLean, 31, who plays fly half, captained the winning England team in the 2014 Rugby World Cup earning her an MBE
Before you went professional, how did you balance rugby with work?
Leading into the 2014 World Cup, I was getting up at 5.30am, doing a session in the gym, getting to school for 8am, setting up my classroom, doing a full day’s teaching, and then going back to the gym at 6pm. Then coming home and marking, getting food ready, and repeat.
How did you deal with injuries?
Some days I was like, ‘Can you pass that pencil?’ thinking, ‘I can’t bend down today.’ But the kids loved it when I went into school with black eyes. The idea that someone’s playing for England, especially when you’re really small, is crazy for them. They were my biggest fans.
How strict is your diet?
We need to eat a lot of food, anything high in protein; chicken, salmon, steak with some green vegetables. If it’s an earlier kick-off I’ll have a bigger breakfast of toast, poached eggs and avocado then prematch, a banana and peanut butter wrap. As you get closer to match day, you want to get your calories in. Foods like sweet potato feature regularly.
How do you balance muscle mass with agility and speed?
That’s the beauty of rugby: you get every type of body shape and size in the mix. Rochelle is your muscle mass, she’s a forward, she needs to have a bit of weight on her and shift that weight. Fleeto, who’s a hooker, needs to be mobile and very lean. For me, it’s a bit of both. I don’t want to be huge and not able to move but I also need to be able to hold my own. It’s the best of both worlds.
John McEnroe recently said of Serena Williams,“If she played the men’s circuit she’d be, like, 700th in the world”. What do you make of that?
If you compare me and [England rugby player] George Ford kicking a ball, he’s always going to kick a ball further. The games are very separate in terms of rugby but we trained against the boys yesterday, for what we call overspeed training; they’re generally faster so with them we play at quicker speeds than our regular game, which helps us improve. It’s not about being compared to them, it’s about using them to make our game better. That’s all you can do. I’m an athlete but yes, I am female – and I’m alright with that.
Sarah Hunter, England Captain
England captain and no 8 Sarah Hunter, 31, from North Shields, has an MBE for services to rugby. Outside her professional contract, she is a university rugby development officer for the RFU
How are you taking your training to the next level ahead of the World Cup?
We’ve run further, lifted more weights, done more physical training. One of the biggest things that’s helped is the recovery time, so when you do go to the next training session, the intensity you can train at is higher.
Now you’re professional, is it still possible to go out with friends?
You can go to the pub and have a drink but most people go for Diet Coke these days. Ultimately, our bodies are our job now so it’s important we treat them with respect. Having a full-time nutritionist has been helpful. They look at us individually to determine what we need to do to build muscle, gain or drop weight, and how much protein and carbohydrate we need. They also look at the timings of our meal strategy: for instance, eating within half an hour of activity to replenish energy stores.
Rugby has come a long way in terms of gender but it’s still thought of as very white and middle class. Is that changing?
There’s a lot of people working at the RFU who are looking to grow the game in different ethnic minority groups so that it becomes accessible to everyone. Obviously there will be some challenges around religion and beliefs – but World Rugby, the international Rugby Union body, has recently allowed players to wear headscarves and long tights, which opens up the game to more people.
In your job, have you seen attitudes towards the sport change?
Absolutely. In the universities, I’d say 99% of women were trying rugby for the first time. The freshers’ fairs were a battle to get women to shake off the perception of rugby being a male sport, or the fear of getting hurt. But after two or three sessions, those perceptions had gone out the window. One of its unique selling points is the team ethos. I’ve played other sports as well and it just doesn’t seem to be as powerful. There’s such a lot of banter and laughter.
What about in the professional sense?
In my time we’ve gone from being described as ‘women’s rugby’ to just ‘rugby’. That’s massive. We just want to promote the best game that we can and let our rugby do the talking.
And would you like to be paid as much as a male rugby player?
Obviously we’d like to be paid like the men but we don’t make the revenue that they do, so you’ve got to put it in perspective. They’ve been professional since 1995, so they’ve had a relatively short life as professionals – it’s not long ago since they were managing full-time jobs too.
Rochelle Clark, Prop
Prop Rochelle Clark, 36, is the most capped player in england male and female rugby history with 124 caps and has an MBE for her efforts. When she’s not squaring up to the opposition, she’s the head coach at Chesham stags Rugby Club and Buckinghamshire university
You’re one of the team’s most experienced players – how have you seen women’s rugby change over the years?
It’s evolved so much – the speed of the game, the physical prowess of the teams. If you look at a photo from when I first got capped in 2003, we were pretty rough around the edges.
Did having a complementary job help you fulfil your rugby ambitions?
Yeah, I was able to fit training around my schedule, which was lucky compared to other members of the squad. But I didn’t have sick days – I’d go to training when I was dying because I didn’t want to let anyone down. I just love that we work really hard for each other.
So your life is rugby all day, every day?
I’m slightly rugby obsessed. You’ve got to have a certain amount of obsession because before [the professional contracts] you had to do it purely because you loved it. If you come to my house there’s rugby on 24/7. We’re re-watching old games, we’ve got it on TV every Saturday, and then I coach most nights of the week as well. My housemate and I just chat rugby – we’re rugby bores to be honest.
ow does training at this level of intensity take its toll on the body?
I’m not going to say you don’t get niggles, but I’m still going at my ripe old age. Once you get to a level of fitness and strength, your body’s robust so you can take it. As a prop, I have to be really strong and able to withstand pressure to hold a lot of weight in the scrums. In the front row we have to produce a lot of power because the other team’s weight comes through our shoulders. Some teams we are scrummaging against can weigh over 700kg.
Your teammates say you’re a pro at weights. What can you bench?
We have to do a one max test [a measure of the maximal weight a subject can lift] to gauge our strength and when I got my 100th cap, I got 100 kilos [15.5 stone]. That was a massive deal for me as that’s quite heavy.
What’s the most important thing rugby has taught you?
Confidence, and the ability to be friends with people from different walks of life. As a kid I was a little overweight and at times I blended into the background. Rugby makes me confident. It’s also taught me to be myself, and not try to pretend to be something I’m not.
Images: Tom Van Schelven