As the Women’s Rugby World Cup gets under way, a chastened Oliver Pickup explains why you should never compare yourself to the players you see on screen
Over the next three weeks the very best female rugby players in the world will squeeze, dip and drive in their quest for World Cup glory. And England, who have been defeated by the New Zealand Black Ferns in the finals of the past three editions, are heavily tipped to still be standing come the August 17 climax at Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris.
On Friday, Gary Street’s team will kick off their campaign against Pool A opponents Samoa in Marcoussis, a suburb 20 miles south of the French capital. Like the rest of England’s games, the match will be broadcast on Sky Sports – a sign that women’s rugby is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
And yet, the sight of the ladies flinging about the oval ball will inevitably flick a machismo switch in parts of the male population. Silently and priggishly, these men will puff their chests out and think: I can match up to these female international players.
Fools! Believe me, unless you’re a professional athlete at the top of your game, you can’t.
Warming to the task: Oliver stretches with the England team. (PIC: LEWIS MILES)
When I was invited to take part in one of England’s notorious ‘toughen-up Tuesday’ training sessions – which captain Katy Mclean calls a “total beasting” – earlier in the summer, I confess I took to proceedings a certain air of superiority. “I’m bigger, stronger and faster,” I thought to myself, playing a highlights reel from my university team heyday in my mind. “They’re not even professional sportsfolk.”
It didn’t take the England team long to knock such idiotic thoughts out of my head.
The England women’s rugby team is professional in everything but name (and, of course, pay packet, although there are whispers that the sevens team will be rewarded with contracts after the World Cup). For instance, in the past year the squad have spent 112 days on international duty. They juggle their jobs – the squad includes policewomen, teachers, and a vet – with these strenuous commitments to England. Each player effectively spends all her spare time either training or playing rugby.
Indeed, they are backed by a team of 12, including a doctor, three physios and three coaches, one of whom is Stuart Pickering, formerly the strength and conditioning coach at Worcester Warriors. Pickering would became my worst enemy that afternoon.
The training camp started with Pickering ordering the squad to strap on heart rate monitors, which would be constantly studied by the team of physios on the sideline. We were told to take on electrolytes as a mounted video camera was readied to scan the action. I felt a lump in my throat. This was not going to make pretty viewing.
We began the session with some touch rugby, which was mellow enough, and my only key involvement was a rather clumsy dummy run which led to a try for my side.
Next up was sprints. I was ushered out towards where the wingers and fullbacks were standing. “He’s a boy, so he’ll be quick,” I heard someone say. Buoyed by the comment, I kept pace with the speedsters for about the first four try line-to-22 bursts, though tailed off for the final six. I was tactically preserving my energy – or so I told myself.
Pickering barked: “Malcolms next.”
I queried what this involved. Mclean winked at me and said: “Just make sure you keep your head up and your hands on your hips; if you show signs of tiredness we will all have to do it again … so don’t.”
The next 10 minutes were horrific. It transpires Malcolms are a rugby league drill invented by the evidently sadistic Malcolm Reilly, the former Great Britain coach.
You start lying on the ground face down with chin on the halfway line, push up and run backwards to the 10-metre line, go down completely flat on the ground again before pushing up once more and sprinting to the far 10-metre line. Even describing it is an effort.
We had to perform this six times and by the fourth I was blowing hard. During the final repetition I was last by some distance, my legs were burning, and I was already expelling deeply unattractive noises of effort which would come to punctuate my afternoon with increasingly regularity.
On their fronts, their heads turned to watch me complete the set, the women cheered – rather than jeered – words of encouragement. “Suck it up Ollie, imagine it’s the last five minutes of the World Cup final,” shouted fullback Danielle ‘Nolli’ Waterman, daughter of Bath legend Jim Waterman, with a grin. I welcomed their collective mothering, and needed it for what was to come shortly.
While the squad and I completed our Malcolms, on the adjacent pitch the coaches had mapped out the ultimate rugby training circuit. It was killer, as though Martin Johnson had been granted carte blanche in designing the obstacles on a special edition of Gladiators.
Group huddle: Oliver and the squad during their session (PIC: GPPICS)
Having just about caught my breath, I buddied up with 28-year-old Mclean. At 5’6″ tall and weighing 11st the South Shields primary schoolteacher is one of the more diminutive of the group, and certainly possesses more modest dimensions compared to me.
Side by side we performed farmers’ lifts, raising weights before running half the pitch and back, twice. Then, with a 30-second breather, we were heaving weights on the end of ropes between our legs. By now my grunts were incredibly loud, and embarrassing next to the silent, efficient Mclean.
On and on we moved, from one challenge to the next, and as my energy levels dipped uncomfortably low it became a delirious blur. There was the plough, which required a low body dip and straight drive (rather than into the ground, as I could only manage in my shattered state), downing stand-up tackle bags, hitting and rolling other bags. And then, once all that was over, it was time for the coup de grâce.
We were tasked with wrestling the rugby ball off each other. I started with it, gripping as hard as I could – but Mclean stole it from me within five seconds. Completely zapped of stamina and spirit, I attempted to wrest the ball back, and simply couldn’t – not to save my life. And I think the skipper was even giving me a chance.
Emasculated and humiliated, I feigned willing to take part in the 40-minute game that followed the circuit training, slipping a bib over my head. As the women, who showed no sign of tiredness, took to the field one of the coaches, Graham Smith, tugged me back and said: “I don’t think you should do this mate … you might actually get hurt.”
He wasn’t wrong. Mightily relieved that I had an excuse to stop the punishment, I silently took my place on the touchline and watched on, humbled.
So as you watch Mclean and her amazingly focused England team-mates charge into their World Cup battle, dispel any thoughts that you, dear boy, could match them. Instead, give them the respect and support that they deserve.
This article was first published in The Telegraph in July 2014