It was through sheer nepotism – rather than any level of talent or recognition – that I managed to blag an invitation to the Rugby Writers' annual awards dinner last week. It was, as ever, a very enjoyable evening ruined somewhat by the prospect of having to drive back to Bath come midnight, and not hit the free bar with Dallaglio and Co.
The wine flowed (not for me, of course) and, as it began to take effect, so did the opinions. I enjoyed some very candid conversation with RFU referee David Rose no less. Naturally he is the enemy so I do hope nobody saw me talking to him – I would be ostracised in a heartbeat. It turns out that, despite his chosen vocation, he's actually a nice guy. Mad, I know, but true.
It was around 11pm when something weird happened. No, it was not the awarding of World Player of the Year to women's rugby sensation Maggie Alphonsi, it was the crowd reaction. Call me ignorant, but I really thought a good number of the more seasoned, red-nosed journos in the room might view this as scandalous. "A woman? In rugger?" But no, I could have heard the cheers had I stayed at home.
Last year the winner was Brian O'Driscoll who, after a stunning year, pretty much walked into the award. But on that night the award – dare I say it – didn't really seem so significant. After all, what was it telling us that we didn't already know? This year, however, everyone in the room knew the instant Alphonsi's name was called out that the winds had changed for women's rugby.
Preconceptions began to dilute during the World Cup in which England lost narrowly in the final to a stunning New Zealand side but this prize – this piece of metal recognition – served not only as a treat for its winner but as a block of physical proof that this sport is real, and here to stay.
There will always be comparisons with the men's game. This, I guess, is natural. The truth is that – and I take my life in my hands as I say this – Mother Nature took steps to ensure that, for physical reasons, the games will always remain separate. Men will, for the foreseeable future, remain that bit larger and more powerful. But please, let us not waste time on such bar-room trivia; let's just talk about the girls instead.
England's No 8 Catherine Spencer trains in the same gym as us in Bath and, well, wow. I don't know what time she gets up in the morning but I am pathologically early and have never beaten her to the treadmill.
Anyone can get up early, I hear you cry, but does she do any work there? To prove the point I will quote my good friend Butch James: "I'm going back to the coffee shop. I ain't squatting till she's gone. It's embarrassing." Or, I can quote Bath and England tighthead prop Duncan Bell: "I honestly think she could beat me in a fight."
The thing is, powerful though she is, Spencer is part of the new generation of female rugby players. Back in the late 1990s, we at Saracens used to often share a changing room with the women's team. Not at the same time – they trained at night – but if, like me, you spent all of your free time poring over video footage and studying the game (or hanging around drinking free coffee and filling everyone else's boots with Deep Heat), they often arrived while we were still at the club.
We didn't hang around long, though, as they were terrifying. Imagine being 18, just out of school and seeing a woman twice your size wander into the locker room. Fag hanging from the corner of her mouth, Keegan-esque mullet neatly coiffed, time-worn muscle vest taken off without flinching. This sent out two very clear messages: "You are not my type," and "Get out. Now."
But the women that play now are different. Yes they are, in many cases, big, powerful girls but they are now athletes. The likes of Spencer and Alphonsi are strikingly athletic and, when playing, staggeringly good. Spencer is in a similar mould to Nick Easter in that she seems able to carry the ball over the gain line almost at will and seems never to get tired (tone: jealous). Alphonsi, well, she is a machine built for rugby. She runs and hits harder than any female player I have ever seen and appears, to the trained eye, to be utterly fearless.
So these are the characters charged with taking their beloved game into uncharted territory. Through grit and diligence they seek to gain profile for a sport which for so long has been dismissed by an ignorant majority. The game of rugby will, henceforth and regardless of sex, grow and grow. And if anyone has a problem with this, see Maggie.Reuse content