A roar goes round the enthusiastic, friendly crowd as the ball sails out of play: England's rugby team has just drawn 8-8 with the World Champions and sealed a win in their three-match test series. But it is hundreds, rather than thousands, of fans who are here to celebrate their triumph against New Zealand, and some of them had struggled to find out where and when the game was happening.
"It took me ages to find out where it was," says PE teacher and Bath supporter Caroline Shephard, 28, of Farnham, Surrey, as I join her in one of two small stands at Esher Rugby Club in Hersham, Surrey. "It was so poorly publicised I had to search the internet to find out where it was. I only found out because I got an email forwarded from someone else. Otherwise I wouldn't have known."
The match in question is the final game of England women's rugby team's Autumn International Series against New Zealand. After a week where women's sport has come into focus thanks to the failure of any female competitors to be nominated for the shortlist for this month's BBC Sports Personality of the Year competition, this lack of publicity gets to the heart of the problem. Unlike the first match in the series last Saturday, which followed the male Barbarians game against the Australians at Twickenham, this contest is not being screened live on television, although those in the know can tune in to web streaming via the RFU's website.
Ms Shephard, who is at the match with her friend, parents James and Linda and dog Ruby (not something you would usually see at Twickenham), believes women's rugby and sport in general will never be taken as seriously as men's, because if the media does not support it, people are not aware of it and will not go to watch it. And it is by watching sport that people might be inspired to play. One of her pupils is playing her first club rugby game as we speak, inspired by an in-school taster session from a Surrey rugby development officer.
Further along the wooden terrace, which reverberates as fans stamp their feet and shout encouragement to the players, car mechanic Martin Rogers, 51, of Bournemouth, is taking in his first taste of women's rugby at the behest of his eight-year-old daughter Leah, who plays tag rugby at school. At £10 for adults and £5 for children, it is an affordable day out.
Mr Rogers knows a couple of players and, having played rugby himself, is impressed with the standard. "It needs to be pushed forward more so it's in the forefront more of people's minds," he says, adding that those not involved in the sport did not hear about it much.
The profile of women's sport is a "chicken and egg" problem, according to Jerry Mattinson, 44, an emergency care practitioner who drove down from Wolsingham, Co Durham, with his daughter Caity, 15, a member of the England under-18 talent development group for rugby. Women's rugby does not get the coverage, so people don't know about it, he says, and it is difficult to put it on a bigger stage at the moment to give it that profile. "Part of the problem of putting it in somewhere like Twickenham is you have got no atmosphere because there's empty seats," adds Mr Mattinson, who runs two girls' rugby sides. Only two of the 28 girls at his club have seen women play the sport.
At the final whistle, the players – who will all go back to work or university tomorrow – mingle with the crowd on the pitch or join friends in the stand. England No 8 Sarah Hunter, 26, who plays for club side Lichfield, said the series win "puts right the wrong of 14 months ago", when England lost out to New Zealand in the World Cup final.
"I think today shows that women's sport is absolutely fantastic," she says. "There are a lot of female athletes out there who do a lot of good things. They are very committed to their sport, very dedicated, put in some great performances." She said there were world champions that went unnoticed but last week's events had put women's sport in the limelight and given it attention. She hoped the women's rugby team had helped this. As for the young fans anxiously queuing for her autograph – they have found their sporting role models.
- More about:
- P Funk