Almanack: Distinction on the distaff side

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NOT so long ago women's rugby teams were regarded in the same light as skateboarding ducks: remarkable not for their skill or style but their very existence. But not any more. The game is positively booming, and the status of England's women at international level is every bit as high as that of their male counterparts. This afternoon they play Italy at the Metropolitan Police ground in Esher, in the first game of their build-up for next year's World Cup.

Carol Isherwood was the vice-captain of the England team beaten by the United States in the final of the 1991 World Cup, and is now an England selector. She was a pioneer of the women's game: 'When I started there were 12 clubs. Now we've got 180, all affiliated to the WRFU.' Divisions One and Two are national leagues just like their male counterparts, requiring the same commitments in terms of time and expense. 'The best three sides are Saracens, Wasps and Richmond,' Carol says. 'They tend to win just about everything at the moment. But there are other sides on the way up.'

Saracens have six players in the squad for today's game, including Karen Almond, the England captain since 1988. How do the England players view their prospects? 'Very good,' reports Karen. 'We're building towards the World Cup now, and morale is very high. We played Italy in the last World Cup and they gave us a bit of a fright - so we won't be underestimating them.'

Will Karen and her colleagues be emulating the post-match celebratory tactics of, say, Gareth Chilcott? 'It's difficult to compare,' Karen says, somewhat sniffily. 'I think men's rugby is the same as women's rugby - at the very top people take the game very seriously. After a men's international I'm sure they all socialise but they don't go out and wreck places and this, that and the other which perhaps some of the junior clubs might do . . . '

What about the problems currently besetting the male game? Almanack asked Emma Mitchell, England's voluble scrum-half, if there are commercial pressures on the players? 'No,' she says, 'I wish there were. We've moved on from the days when we used to have to buy all of our kit and stay in youth hostels - we now get reasonable deals from hotels, and kit sponsorship. But the World Cup next year will cost each player between pounds 750 and pounds 1,000.'

What about the twin evils of raking and gouging? 'Women's rugby is just as aggressive and physical,' she says, 'but there isn't the rough side to it, the going beyond the bounds of the law, that there is in the men's game - thankfully. People say it reminds them of boys of 17 or 18: the love is for the running side of the game.'

Yet still there are many hard collisions. Given that some experts are concerned that women boxers may be vulnerable to breast damage, do such concerns occur to women rugby players? 'Well, no one wears any protection other than just a sports bra,' Emma says, 'but the way you're taught to take contact in rugby is with your shoulder, leaning forward. That means that the most vulnerable part is protected. And anyway,' she adds, 'I'd argue that men are much more vulnerable to . . . underhand tactics, shall we say?'

(Photograph omitted)