Rugby Union: Riches of the poor relations

Paul Trow looks at the champions who are the best-kept secret in England
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The Independent Online
Anyone seeking proof that money and logic are estranged bedfellows in English sport should take a look at women's rugby union. While millions of pounds are routinely pumped into high-profile male events, some of which are little better than lame ducks, one genuine success story remains a ridiculously well-kept secret.

The facts, though, should be screamed from the rooftops. England are the world champions and 8,000 women are turning out regularly for their clubs, always on a Sunday, mind, so as not to clash with men's matches. What's more, the whole operation gets by on a budget of pounds 200,000 - less than the annual salary of many an Allied Dunbar Premiership player.

Amazingly, the Rugby Football Union for Women are quite relaxed about the situation and exude almost a perverse pride at making a little go a long way. However, as England start to build towards their World Cup defence in Amsterdam next May, the current account will feel the strain over the months to come, starting with today's international against Spain in Madrid.

The season continues early next year with games against France, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and by the time the World Cup is over the RFUW will have good reason to thank their latest sponsor, Swiss Life, for underwriting the England team to the tune of pounds 20,000, with a pounds 10,000 bonus to retain the trophy.

Help from the 10 official suppliers to the England team comes in kind as well as cash and is bewilderingly varied - everything from meat to sports bras. But Rosie Golby, formerly the RFUW's secretary and now president, remembers even more straitened times.

"We were self-funding until 1994 and the players paid for everything - shirts, kit, you name it - even at international level. The girls paid to go to the 1994 World Cup and volunteers are still the sport's lifeblood. But, financially, England are women's rugby's most successful team, although the players and management still contribute to their own travel and accommodation.

"Most players take it up at college and carry on playing when they're working. They train at night, often driving hundreds of miles in the process. Obviously, we can never match the men for raw power but women's rugby is fluent and skilful, and great to watch."

England played their first international, against Wales, 10 years ago but did not really come into their own until 1990 when the Great Britain squad split up into the four home countries. Their first defeat was inflicted by the United States in 1991 but their second, a 15-17 setback against France at Northampton, only happened last February.

Several members of the side which beat the US in the 1994 World Cup final in Edinburgh are still playing, including Nicola Ponsford, who is one of only two full-time RFUW employees. A third national development officer has just been appointed and will work from the RFUW's new office in Newbury - the operation is at present based at de Montfort University in Bedford.

The sport may be in its infancy but the Corinthian spirit which drives it on is a throw back to a bygone era when everything was run exceedingly well by enthusiastic and good-humoured amateurs. Women's rugby may be impoverished but it's fun, and it definitely should not be a secret.

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