So Emily Scarratt and Sarah Hunter are driving back to the Midlands after an England training camp, they are in the middle lane of the M40 and a car full of lads comes past them in the overtaking lane. One holds up a hastily scrawled sign. It’s not an invitation to a party. It says: “Good luck in the World Cup.”
As an illustration of how far women’s rugby has come, it works. “It was genuinely amazing,” Scarratt said. “I was hanging out the back of the car, trying to take a picture. That they should recognise us, know we had a World Cup coming up, it was just one of the nicest things.”
The seventh World Cup starts on Friday at Marcoussis, the French Rugby Federation headquarters just outside Paris, and culminates in a final at Stade Jean Bouin on 17 August. Since the first tournament, in 1991, the women’s game has made huge strides and Scarratt is testament to the change.
At 24 she already has 50 caps and one World Cup final to her credit and is regarded as one of the world’s leading centres as England try to break a run that has seen them finish runners-up to New Zealand in the last three World Cups. When she first broke through in 2008, she scored a dozen tries (she now has 29) in as many matches and was held up as the women’s answer to Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll.
It is heady stuff but Scarratt’s feet are firmly on the ground, as befits a farmer’s daughter from Desford in Leicestershire: she has a degree in sport and exercise science from Leeds Metropolitan, she is an assistant PE teacher at St Edward’s in Birmingham, she has balance.
In a sporting sense too. She could have played hockey, she rejected a basketball scholarship in the United States, she beats her colleagues in England training camps at table tennis, playing left-handed. “Some of the girls thought they might get the better of her at golf and practised secretly before getting her down to the driving range,” the England coach Gary Street said. “When she gets there, Scaz gets this big bag out of her car and smashes the ball out of sight.”
Street, who has been in charge since 2007, is in no doubt about what Scarratt brings to the party. “It’s the touch of magic. Sometimes she does things in training and the whole squad just stops, which embarrasses her because she’s a very humble individual. I would pay to watch her running around in training. It looks as though she doesn’t try but she has such a natural game, she has all the time she needs.”
Her parents, Mark and Yvonne, are sporty and, growing up, Scarratt tried her hand at anything. Between five and 12 years old she played rugby with the boys at Leicester Forest (then known as Old Bosworthians), before the arrival of Anstey Ladies in a merger provided a girls team. Then, at 17, she joined Lichfield, her nearest women’s Premiership club.
“It toughens you up, playing with the boys, and it gave me huge confidence knowing I could hold my own and that they knew I could catch, pass, that I wouldn’t let them down,” Scarratt (right) said.
She is an avid Leicester Tigers fan and the 2003 men’s World Cup made a vivid impression. Having played both half-back positions as a youngster and possessing goal-kicking ability, Jonny Wilkinson offered one role model, Will Greenwood another at centre. “Will was my go-to person to watch, he wore the 13 shirt, but Mike Catt as well, he saw the game in a different way,” Scarratt said. “You don’t try to copy them but you see bits and pieces that make you think you can introduce something different to your own game. You have to figure out your own way of doing them. It’s problem-solving and that makes everything more interesting.”
Within a year of joining Lichfield (where Hunter, England’s No 8, also plays), having just finished at Bosworth College and yet to become a student in Leeds, Scarratt made her England debut. “I just felt it was a huge privilege, half the girls there didn’t know who I was and I just tried to show what I was about,” she said. “I was around people like Sue Day [former centre and captain] and I thought, ‘why can’t I be like that?’”
At 5ft 11in and 12st 3lb, she has a definite presence allied to pace. According to Street: “She can defend, she gives us a running threat at 13, a kicking option right across the middle and in the last few weeks she has brought leadership. People listen to her and, though she’s only 24, she’s not a youngster any more.”
Scarratt embraces the responsibility. Walking out in front of a capacity crowd at the Twickenham Stoop for the 2010 final against the Black Ferns was a defining moment but during that tournament, she recognises now, she just went with the flow. “I have experience to share, I have to take ownership of the fact that I have 50 caps, that’s a lot of knowledge that needs to be passed on to those whose first World Cup this is,” she said.
She and her 2014 colleagues aim to place their own footprint on women’s rugby in France and Scarratt, who entertains Olympic ambitions in sevens in 2016, cannot wait.
Five players to watch:
Fiao'o Fa'amausili (New Zealand):
Captain of Black Ferns since 2013 and yet to taste defeat. Hooker on the field, police officer off it, she numbers Rambo and Kickboxer among her favourite films, which tells its own story.
Mandy Marchak (Canada):
Bolstered the midfield since 2006 and captained her country’s sevens team. Veteran of two World Cups and a key ingredient of the Canadians’ recent tour of New Zealand.
Niamh Briggs (Ireland): Full-back who kicked Ireland to their first Six Nations grand slam in 2013 and a try-scorer in their 25-0 win over England that year. A policewoman, she switched from Gaelic football to rugby only four years ago.
Tui Ormsby (Australia): Another police officer, she is the first Australian to appear in four World Cups. A 36-year-old fly-half from Manly who plays for Warringah Ratettes, she is a mentor to the Wallaroos.
Sandrine Agricole (France): Another fly-half of huge experience, she will retire after the tournament. In the form of her life for her club Rennes and helped engineer the 18-6 defeat of England in Grenoble in February.
1 August: New Zealand v Kazakhstan 12.0; Canada v Spain 2.0; Australia v South Africa 2.45*; United States v Ireland 4.0; England v Samoa 5.0*; France v Wales 7.45*.
5 August: US v Kazakhstan 12.0; Australia v Wales 2.0; England v Spain 2.45*; Canada v Samoa 4.0; New Zealand v Ireland 5.0*; France v South Africa 7.45*.
9 August: Ireland v Kazakhstan 12.0; Spain v Samoa 2.0; England v Canada 2.45*; Wales v South Africa 4.0; New Zealand v US 5.0*; Australia v France 7.45*.
13 August: Semi-finals 5.0 and 7.45*.
17 August: Final 5.45*.
* live on Sky Sports