Rugby’s had a chequered history with the Olympics. It became part of the programme at the 1900 Olympics in Paris but didn’t feature in 1904. At the 1908 Olympics in London, the Great Britain team (represented by county champions Cornwall) was defeated by Australia. Rugby was last played at the Olympics in 1924 and, after an absence of 92 years, the sport returns for Rio2016 in the form of rugby sevens. And Rio2016 will be the first time women’s rugby has been included in the Olympics programme.
It’s been less than 92 years since I played rugby but I thought joining a training session with Blackheath Women’s Rugby Football Club would be a good way to brush up my skills. The women’s team has been playing for 30 years and Blackheath Rugby Club was founded in 1858 – the first rugby club in the world without restricted membership. And both the training ground and the match day pitch are within 20mins drive of where I live.
Training session 1
I emailed BWRFC to explain Freyathlon and Anita replied quickly and enthusiastically, inviting me to join the Thursday night training session. I turned up at Well Hall feeling more than a little apprehensive. I wandered into the changing room and introduced myself to Marc, who I later learned was the head coach. I managed his expectations about my experience and abilities, telling him I’d last played at school and couldn’t run fast. The words ‘I’m not an elite athlete’ fell out of my mouth and I’m pretty sure Marc had reached his own conclusions about my athletic prowess.
He told me where to find the team, in the bar, lacing up boots and swapping stories about bruises. I found out Anita had shared the link to my blog with the team: ‘You’re the blogger!’ ‘I was bored at work today and read all your blog!’ ‘What are you doing next?’ ‘I haven’t read it… but I will.’
We made our way to the all-weather pitch, pulled on blue and green vests, and began a game of touch rugby to warm up. I had no idea where to go or what to do and just did whatever the woman next to me told me to do. No one passed me the ball. And that was a wise decision on everyone’s part. Once or twice Marc stopped play and told everyone to look at where they were on the pitch, leaving us in no doubt we should have been in better positions.
I was beginning to regret not wearing my contact lenses because I couldn’t always judge how close/far people were, which didn’t help on the rare occasion the ball, carried by a speedy player, passed anywhere near me. There were about 25 of us on the pitch, some wore gumshields and a couple wore head guards – a reminder that rugby is a contact sport.
Marc called time on the touch game and told those of us who were new or newish to the game to join Trevor, one of the assistant coachs. Six of us joined Trevor and he explained we’d be practicing tackling. He explained how to tackle from the side: shoulder down, head behind the legs, arms around the legs. We divided into two teams and the tackling began. Because I don’t run fast I quickly felt like a sitting duck as the tacklers brought me down with a thud, coming in from the left and the right. Once or twice Trevor checked whether I was OK after a particularly heavy landing. And my pride wouldn’t let me admit any pain or discomfort.
We swapped and it was time to tackle. I discovered the combination of a solid frame and tenacious attitude was a boon as I successfully floored a few women. And I started feeling pretty good about myself. Conor, the second assistant coach, brought me back to reality. ‘You forgot to put on the burners,’ he said, as one woman sped past my lumbering tackle – not the first time a woman has escaped my grasp.
We rejoined the main group and finished the session with a quick game. The highlight of which, for me, was losing my modesty shorts as they slid down my leggings during a tackle. But I loved it and told them I’d be back for another training session.
At home I inspected my knees, a bit swollen and bruises blooming, and told Trace how hard the other women had tackled me. She looked at me, hard: ‘You were tackled. That’s all. You’ve never been tackled before.’
Training session 2
The following Thursday I was back for another training session. Habiba, Jeske, and I shared how we’d felt after the tackling session: aches and bruises in knees, legs, shoulders, and neck.
But we were back. This time I was wearing my contact lenses. And was not wearing my modesty shorts.
After warm-up stretches, we split into pairs or teams of three and began relay sprints – the distance varied according to where people played on the pitch. The two women in my team were fast and I apologised to them for my lack of speed but they just encouraged me, calling out support and high-fiving each time I crossed the line. And that really helped me try harder and run as fast as I could.
Marc divided us into backs and forwards: ‘And if you don’t know what you are, ask me.’ I asked. I was a forward. We forwards divided into two groups and started practicing line-outs. I was a lifter not a liftee. Alex and Ais explained the intricacies of lifting from the front and behind: how to stand, where to place your hands and thumbs, how to lift using your legs. I hoped the kettlebell classes would pay off and started hefting the very patient Michaela. She didn’t mince her words: ‘Just dig your thumbs in and shove.’
After a few attempts I got the hang of it: facing the opposite line-out, swivelling at the last minute to reach and grip, hoisting Michaela into the air without tipping her over. Becky, chair of the women’s section, nodded her approval and we moved on to practising scrums. She told me where to stand, how to crouch, when to apply resistance. It worked. I was a scrum queen. Who knew.
We rejoined the backs who’d been practicing some impressive passes and set moves, which they put into action against us, to finish the training session. As we made our way back to the clubhouse, Becky checked whether I wanted to play on Sunday: ‘You’ll probably be on the subs bench but we often play rolling subs so you might get on the pitch.’ I went home apprehensively happy.
Arriving at Rectory Field, we squinted through the autumnal mist, and joined the team in the bar. After saying a few hellos I left to change and put in my contact lenses. In the changing room, women were applying tape to knees, ankles, and thighs, clipping nails short, taking off jewellery, pulling on club shirts, shorts, and socks, and lacing up boots. I collected a pair of shorts and socks from the shop and borrowed a pair of boots from Sharon.
Captain Alex gave the team talk and told us a crew from Forward Pass Pictures would be filming the day for a documentary on women’s rugby. She reminded us we’d be representing the team if we were interviewed: ‘No swearing, then?’ Five of us were on the subs bench, Alex asked us to keep the water bottles full and carry them on and off the pitch whenever there was a halt in play. We filled the bottles and headed out for the warm-up while the First XV got the short straw of removing fox shit from the pitch.
The match kicked off and I joined fellow sub Tara, and supporters Trace, Rob, and Michaela’s sister Shannon in the stand. We shouted, we cheered, we groaned. Some of the First XV flashed their pompoms. Players came off, subs went on, I carried the water bottles. It was a tough game. Our forwards were strong but Sutton and Epsom had a couple of nippy backs who outran our defence. Part of me hoped I’d get to play and part of me dreaded I’d get to play.
I kept an eye on the time and realised I wasn’t going to get on the pitch. Which was the right decision. I had very selfish reasons for joining Blackheath for a game and I couldn’t expect the coach or the team to risk putting me on the pitch. Full time score: 22:10
After the game, I thanked as many people as I could and told them how much I’d enjoyed being part of the team. If I were 20 or 30 years younger I’d definitely join a women’s rugby team but my body can’t now take the relentless physical contact that makes it such a great game. I’ll continue my love of rugby from the comfort of a sofa, with enough drinks and snackage to fortify me through the ups and downs of supporting Ireland, Australia, or England.
Match report (Blackheath WRFC Second XV vs Sutton and Epsom, Blackheath WRFC First XV vs Hampstead), by Alex Zdunek, number five for First XV.
Rugby: Blackheath Women’s Second XV vs Sutton and Epsom. 1 November 2015
Training: Well Hall, Kidbrooke Lane. Match: Rectory Field, Blackheath
TeamFreya: Trace, Rob
Cost: Free to try out, club membership (which includes RFU membership and insurance, allows you to play matches, and covers coaching fees) £240 per year