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Charlotte's rapid rise to stardom

At just 17, Charlotte Male is set to play rugby for her country just over a year after a college gave her a first taste of the sport. Charlotte has been selected to play for the England under-20 team.

It is an incredible achievement for a latecomer to rugby union who was not allowed to play the sport at school.

Charlotte, an experienced athlete and climber, started playing in September 2006 and attributes her flying start in the sport to Yeovil College in Somerset, which is one of many helping girls to get into rugby. The Btec sports science student said: "My dad used to play and I was keen but the school I went to didn't offer rugby for girls, so I wasn't able to do it until I went to college.

"If it wasn't for the college I wouldn't be playing rugby at all. I coach boys at a secondary school. At first they're a bit surprised but when I tell them the level I've played at they soon come round. It's all about respect."

Her success comes as further education contributes to a surge in interest in the women's game.

Charlotte, a prop, is one of four players out of the newly-formed England colleges' team who have made the national squad. She also plays for Ivel Barbarians rugby club in Yeovil.

Andy Roda, coach at the college's rugby academy and a former player for Premier League team Saracens, said the women's game had grown quickly.

"We have always had a philosophy of encouraging potential at the highest level, but we have to have opportunities where people can try things," he said.

"If they don't have the opportunities, how do you know if they're going to be any good? Charlotte's rise has been meteoric. From our point of view, the challenge is making sure we can develop these young athletes by giving them the physical and tactical skills as well as all the other things such as nutrition, how to balance the education, sports training and a career, to keep them in the sport."

A further 28 players from 12 colleges have been picked for a national development weekend at Filton College in Bristol this month to help cultivate the international players of the future.

Despite the men's international team winning the World Cup in 2003 and reaching the final last year, they have been put to shame by the consistency of the women, who won in 1994, have notched up three more finals since then and have never been lower than third place in 15 years.

John Hole, co-ordinator for British Colleges Sport, said that while it does not match the appeal of women's football, rugby is attracting more young players. He said: "Women's rugby is a huge growth sport. It also attracts people who can't play netball or hockey. Anything that gets people active is a huge bonus. The problem the England women's team have is finding opposition who are strong enough for them."

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