Lessons of the sisters in arms

Paul Trow says the ladies of the ring can learn from earlier trail- blazers
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Girls just want to have fun, as the song says. And for some girls there's no fun like the rough and tumble on offer from physically demanding contact sports.

Like boxing, which opened its doors to women at amateur level last week, judo and rugby union were once traditional male preserves, but pioneering distaff spirits nailed that preconception for good some time ago. Judo is now a fully fledged Olympic sport, run on parallel lines to the men's version. Rugby union has yet to reach that level but is attracting ever greater attention. In each case women fought - and won - the same battles those who want to box face.

Like boxing, you must be hard and disciplined to excel at either sport, and they come no harder nor more disciplined than Karen Briggs and Gill Burns.

Briggs, 33, is now retired after winning the world under-48kg judo title four times while Burns, a year younger, has been the captain of the England women's rugby team since 1994. Both have struggled for recognition for themselves and their sport, but neither would swap places with any well- heeled golfer or tennis star.

"I was the fifth of six children and full of energy when I took up judo at 12," Briggs, who now teaches the sport at schools in her native Yorkshire, said. "I loved the physical contact, but judo also appealed because, with different coloured belts to aim for, you're always learning."

As she was learning, so the world was changing, and the fight for recognition reached a successful conclusion when women's judo became a demonstration sport at the 1988 Olympics, and a full-status event at Barcelona in 1992.

Briggs, now married with a baby daughter, added: "I don't see it as a really physical sport because there is a lot of skill involved. You have to be very fast to perform the moves, but when you train as hard as I had to something is bound to give. Even though I got hurt a lot, the pain never put me off."

Burns, a physical education teacher from Liverpool, believes women's rugby is some way down the road judo has already travelled. "The game really started in universities but women soon came to realise how much fun it was and it's grown enormously," said the Waterloo No 8. "There are now two national divisions, but we can't have any more because travelling all over the country is too expensive. There's still a long way to go but it's exciting how much progress we've made over the last decade.

"It was at a hockey tournament in 1987 when someone suggested I tried rugby as I was big, athletic and had the potential to do well. So I joined the Liverpool Polytechnic side and played for England a year later. None of the national squad knew much about the game, so we learned together. But we were all county standard in at least one other sport, which helped.

"Some women's sides are attached to men's clubs but only a few, like Wasps and Richmond, give really good financial support.

"Rugby's appeal is the same for women as it is for men. You either love it or not, but some women revel in the challenge of a contact sport and can't wait to play again even after being hurt. The argument that women are more injury-prone than men is rubbish. You've got to be fit to play rugby, male or female, and you've got to be taught to tackle properly."

The same now applies to the ladies of the ring.