Myths explode in culture shift

Andy Martin searches in vain for fellow sexists before tomorrow's England-Netherlands women's international

"So," said Sally's boyfriend's brother when he heard she played rugby for Waterloo at Blundellsands outside Liverpool, "she's a big, fat, ugly, lesbian then, is she?" Sally, a small, slim, knock-out heterosexual had had this story straight from he r boyfriend.

Gotcha! I thought. The last unreconstructed sexist monster in England. I was beginning to think that this untamed beast, so beloved of the tabloid imagination, had become as extinct as the tyrannosaurus, wiped out by a drastic shift in the cultural climate, obliterated by the meteor of feminism.

In anticipation of tomorrow's England versus Netherlands international at Wasps, I had already scoured the soft south for sceptics who would come out and say they thought "women's rugby" was an oxymoron like "thin Sumo wrestlers" or "Antarctic agriculture".

Rugby, I expected old hands to say, is and should remain the embodiment and preserve of masculinity. Let women stick to netball. But the hulking ex-international (male) rugby player I tackled remained philosophically detached and observed that "they all look the same when they're covered in mud," and that "women's rugby challenges our deepest prejudices."

I knew from Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier that in the North-west the women are shackled to the kitchen sink and slave for the men who sit around with their feet up and their clogs off when they aren't down the pit. So I went to Wigan Pier in search of Canutes holding out against the tide of women's rugby. But what I found was a hotbed of egalitarianism.

Gill Burns, who is 5ft 11in and 13 and a half stone of taut, rippling womanhood and the captain of England told me I was roughly 50 years too late. All the old unbelievers had been converted. After a recent Divisional match between the North and London, a veteran fan and hard-line traditionalist came up to her and confessed, "I came here to see tits and bums and after five minutes I realised I was watching a bloody good game of rugger."

"Miss Burns" is PE teacher and role model to several hundred girls at Calcheth High School who play rugby seemingly unaware that it is supposed to be a man's game. Vikki Furnival, 16, 5ft 3in and seven and a half stone, reckoned: "Anyone of any size or shape can play." I warned her that she was doomed to the kitchen sink and the rolling pin. "Am I 'eck!" she exploded.

Spurred on by England's recent victory in the World Cup, women's rugby is now acclaimed to be the fastest growing team sport in the country. It is so much the norm in the North-West that pathetic rugby widowers can be found on the touchline nursing the baby. When one six-year-old girl happened across a rare men's game, she turned to her mother and said, "But mummy, what are all these men doing playing rugby?"

Gill Burns was herself a late convert to rugby at the age of 23. Her Damascus was a hockey match in Liverpool where she met someone wearing a "Women's Rugby" T-shirt. "I laughed, but I was intrigued, so I went along and discovered that the game combined all my strengths. I was hooked." Within a couple of seasons she was playing for England.

Rugby is a multi-disciplinary sport. Kate Rowe is a pentathlete who trains with Waterloo and reckoned that rugby enhanced her running, swimming, shooting, fencing and horse riding skills. Rugby is now all things to all men and women - except sexual politics.

"We play it for the game," said Helen Clayton, one of the five new caps in the England team, "not to stand on a box and make a point." Another of the post-feminists I met after a coaching session on a frozen pitch at Waterloo, Joanne Lunt, who is studying for a degree in psychology, felt sorry for the men who play rugby. "They're led astray by their own aggression. They can't focus. Women are better fitted for the game, they have more focus." Jenny Hanley, a Scottish international and a physiotherapist much in demand after the men's matches, added, "and they're more supple too. Men are too stiff, too rigid - that's why they break. They ought to be playing netball."

I don't know if the men I spoke to propping up the Waterloo bar were broken men or not, but they were uniformly respectful towards women's rugby. Steve Jew, the England coach, said: "I coach men and I coach women and I don't coach them any differently."

The weakness in the women's game is in kicking. But as Steve Peters, assistant coach, said: "There's no physiological reason why Gill Burns can't kick as well as Rob Andrew. The biggest inequality in the game is money. The women have to fend for themselves. They're true amateurs. But you wouldn't expect Will Carling to have to pay for his shirt."

Even this is changing. The Sport's Council is giving support to the Women's Rugby Football Union and Halboro are chipping in the England kit. Looking at the global picture, Britain is somewhere between Sweden, where the equality law requires the women tobe funded in direct proportion to their numbers, and Japan, where the men's federation believes women should stick to being geisha girls.

But I didn't have to go all the way to Japan to find a genuine hard-core old-style rugby chauvinist. I still had Sally's boyfriend's brother. Then I found Sally's boyfriend. "My brother was only joking," he said, thus shooting my only lead down in flames.

In desperation I turned to Ann O'Flynn, one of the new generation who, at 21, has already been playing for 13 years, and will be on the bench for tomorrow's game. She is a hooker. "Don't you ever get guys coming up to you and saying, `You can come and scrum down with me anytime, luv?" She thought about this and then said, "Only you."

My quest was over. I had finally tracked down the last sexist in England. Me.

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