With her 51st cap for England just under her belt; as captain of a team that's seeded second in the world; with a body of steel, a training schedule from hell and a sense of commitment to make grown men weep, Catherine Spencer is probably the most successful sportsperson that you've never heard of. But watch this space, because by the end of the year Spencer ought to be a legend. She will at least, if she can help it, have won the Six Nations and then taken the England women's rugby team to World Cup victory.
Before you turn to the "real" sport, consider for a moment the women's team's achievements. And experience, just for a little while, the strange thrill of being proud of a British team. The women's may be rated number two, but in November they beat the champions, New Zealand, in a game at Twickenham that had 12,500 jaded rugby fans who had been shivering in the rain shifting to the edge of their seats. (The men's team had just lost rather miserably, 19-6, but let's not hold it against them that their female equivalents are so much more successful.) The match had power, precision and, mercifully, a lot less hoofing than the modern men's game. Internationally, the England women are known as virtually unbeatable. "Quite often," says Spencer, "other countries we play will say, 'You know, you're all professionals.' Well actually, we're not professionals, but I quite like it that people think we are. We play with a professional outlook. We're just not paid."
I meet Spencer, therefore, at the South Gloucestershire leisure centre where she has worked full time for the past four years. Like all of her England colleagues, she has never been paid to play rugby. "My Bristol and England teammate Sophie Hemming works as a vet and does crazy hours," she tells me. "We've got a doctor who until recently worked in A&E. There's a couple of PE teachers, quite a few police officers... I don't know what training the men do, but we just fit it around our work." She adds, with a laugh and an admirable lack of envy: "I should think that they just get more rest time."
Training, for the women's team, starts for most players at about 6am. An average week will squeeze in about two weights sessions at about an hour and a half each, speed training, endurance, plus club training on top of that which is usually twice a week. Weekends are for club or international matches, or occasionally international training camps. And then they go to work. Spencer tries to find one day off a week, but in the run-up to the World Cup this summer that isn't likely to happen.
It is not the relentless training that gets Spencer down, but just occasionally, when she has to miss another birthday or a close friend's wedding, there is sometimes an instant of wondering whether it is all really worth it. "Yes, it's pretty much every day of my life," she admits. "It's a big commitment, but we all do it because we love it. Obviously we're not doing it for the money because there isn't anything there. But it's all worthwhile when you can run out on a pitch and you've got the England shirt and the red rose on your chest and you're representing your country." She adds, in a quiet voice: "It's pretty special."
To hear this engaging, 30-year-old philosophy graduate talk so eloquently and so passionately about her sport, it seems bizarre that a scrum of sponsors is not battling to emblazon a big brand name all over her face. Her admiration for her fellow sportswomen and her humility on and off the pitch certainly seem a far cry from the prima donnas, the squabblers and the world-class shaggers who dominate men's international sport. (If the PR men at Umbro are looking to replace John Terry's sponsorship deal with someone a little cooler, better looking and perfectly well qualified at winning matches, they should look no further.)
Like many of her teammates, Spencer has come from a sporty family, who fortunately supported her early passion for (gosh!) girls' rugby. Quite avant-garde, considering that the game was practically banned until quite late in the 20th century. Her elder brother and her twin brother both still play locally – at least one of them having even been known to wear cast-off England women's training kit into battle. But it wasn't always easy for the fledgling captain of England to get a game. "I started playing mini rugby at Folkestone when I was about seven or eight," she says. "And that was in a boys' team. I played until I was 12, and then girls weren't allowed to play in boys' teams above that age, so I had to stop. I was really disappointed, but I sort of just accepted that I wouldn't play rugby again until I went to university."
She picked her university – Cardiff – for the course and because it seemed a fun place to live. It was a happy coincidence that it happened to have a magnificent rugby team. But it wasn't until her year off, travelling (in New Zealand, as it happens), that she decided that she just couldn't not play the game any longer. "I thought, 'I need to do something about this and just see how far I can get,'" she says.
The rest, of course, is history – but not necessarily smooth sailing. And when Spencer talks about her most memorable matches, it is the rare defeats that seem to animate her more than the standard victories. "Last year, in the Six Nations, Wales beat us," she says, wincing. "It was gutting at the time, really devastating, but I think that it was a really important lesson. A lot of the girls playing in that game had never lost a game of rugby in an England shirt. I think you need to know what it feels like to lose in order to not want to do it again."
This weekend, in the Six Nations championship, England played Wales last night, just tantalisingly after this page went to press. The women's matches will be played just after the men's, but – this time – they won't be televised live. Anyone who wants to see the grace and the power of the England women's team, with Spencer at the helm, therefore, will have to wait for this summer's World Cup – and it will be worth waiting for.
Interest in the team has already surged since their triumph over New Zealand was screened by Sky in November, when fans of the men's game stuck around and saw that the women's game is just the same – only better. Spencer is gradually being asked fewer silly questions along the lines of: "Is the women's game a contact sport?" (Yes.) "Do you tackle?" (Of course.) "Why would a nice pretty girl like you want to get thrown around a pitch for 80 minutes?" (Because it's brilliant! And Spencer's the one that does most of the throwing.)
It is more frustrating when the questions are asked by people who are involved with men's rugby, she says, but fortunately she is a patient woman. She even takes it as a compliment when boys tell her, "Aw, you don't look like a rugby player." Following the Twickenham match, she was even recognised on a Kent park-and-ride bus by a rugby-supporting father and his young son. She doesn't get spotted much at work, though. She looks pretty different in a skirt and heels, with no mud in her hair.
Ask Spencer what is the highlight of her career – what motivates her at 6am on a winter morning – and she finds it hard to choose. Beating New Zealand at Twickenham was obviously a highlight, as was clear in her post-match interview when veteran sports commentators were flabbergasted that here was a brilliant rugby player who could string a sentence together too. "But there are so many moments," she says. "When I was playing mini rugby in Folkestone I earned Most Improved Rugby Player, when I was about 11, which was a massive thing back then, because I was a girl!"
Somewhere in the country, she knows, there is a mini rugby player who'll be watching highlights of the women's Six Nations tournament this week, and dreaming of lifting that trophy. Maybe, when she grows up, she'll do it – and maybe she'll even get paid for it too.
Position No 8
Born 25 May 1979 (shares a birthday with Jonny Wilkinson) in Ashford, Kent
Height 1.79m (5'10")
Weight 90kg (14st 2lb)
1987 Starts playing rugby with local youth team in Folkestone.
1998-2001 Played for the Cardiff University team.
2002-2005 Rejoins Folkestone to play second division rugby and wins first England cap.
2005-2007 Gets her first taste of Premiership rugby with Worcester. Later moves to Bath and is now with Bristol.
2006 World Cup finalist with England.
2007 Becomes captain. Led England to two victories in the RBS Six Nations and a Nations Cup title.
2010 Leads England into World Cup.Reuse content