Could you hold down a full-time job and still find the energy to represent your country at one of the toughest sports there is? Harvey McGavin finds a surprising group of women who can and, what's more, nine of them are teachers. He watched the England Women's Rugby squad prepare to defend their World Cup title.
The World Cup has come and gone early for the England Women's Rugby team. The 11-a-side round ball game may be hogging the headlines even before it has begun, but earlier this month some unsung heroines of British sport defended - albeit unsuccessfully - the title they won four years ago.
Last month at the National Sports Centre in Lilleshall, members of the 29-strong squad were making their final preparations for the championships in Holland. Dedicated, hard-working and skilful, they do what they do because they love it and not because of the pay or the plaudits.
Sounds familiar? It does to nine of them - they're teachers. Their coach, Eric Field, is another - a geography teacher and head of year at Hagley Park Comprehensive in Rugeley, Staffordshire.
He's a convert to the women's game after years coaching senior men's sides. Compared with the male players he has trained, the first thing Eric noticed was that "they asked so many questions. That was the thing that surprised me most and even frightened me. There's a thirst for knowledge."
There's an accountant, a brewery manager, a policewoman and a banker among their ranks but when education is the chosen profession of one in three of England's top female rugby players, a liking for learning is perhaps not surprising.
The squad's seven-day pre-tournament training camp at Lilleshall was a chance for some last-minute revision. Phil Larder, coach to the England men's team, drafted in to fortify the team's defences, was pushing the players through the final session of the camp, willing tired legs and weary limbs to "Keep it going! Sharpen it up!" Things need tightening up at the back following recent defeat by Scotland in the Home Nations championship. And last August they were trounced 67-0 by New Zealand, a result that brought them down to earth with a thump, and hurt like a Jonah Lomu tackle.
"They gave us a good thrashing," admits coach and former captain Carol Isherwood. Even though they were fielding an understrength and jetlagged side, it was spectacular demolition and the rebuilding began in earnest immediately.
Team captain Gill Burns, a rangy six-footer and central pillar of the team, is confident they have learned all the right lessons from that experience.
"We were playing a different style of rugby then," she offers by way of an explanation for the humiliating loss. "We were so naive - they just ran rings round us. Our defence was appalling because we were so used to playing against teams much worse than us."
Gill, who teaches PE at Range High School in Formby, is a fleetfooted and freescoring No 8 (forward to the uninitiated). The former attribute runs in the family - her mother owned a dance school and Gill, a qualified instructor herself, holds diplomas in ballet, tap and modern. The hours she spent perfecting her steps as a teenager are evident on the rugby field as she breaks through opposition lines seemingly at will, with a burst of speed and a flurry of footwork or is hoisted high above her teammates' heads at lineouts. She has been a fixture in the side since the late Eighties but a lot of other things in women's rugby have changed since then.
When England played Wales in Cardiff 10 years ago they stayed in a youth hostel the night before the game. The team that travelled to New Zealand had to pay more than pound;1,000 each for the privilege of representing their country. But in Holland it will be all expenses paid and, for the first time, they will savour the sort of facilities routinely enjoyed by most international athletes.
"I have been playing for 10 years and for the first eight we had to pay for everything - even the shirts we were playing in," recalls Gill Burns. Now the names emblazoned on their kit, Cotton Traders and Swiss Life, are the fruits of new sponsorship deals.
And a hefty award of nearly pound;250,000 from the National Lottery fund has changed the face of the women's game. It is paying for the week's training at Lilleshall, the best pre-competition preparation they have ever had. "The funding has been fantastic," says Carol Isherwood. "It's like we have been recognised as a legitimate sport at last."
But just as importantly, it pays for loss of earnings and supply cover for the team's teachers, thus making the burden of full-time work and a daily training schedule a little bit easier to bear.
Even so, the teachers in the squad have to rely on the goodwill of their schools to let them pursue their sporting aspirations. Some, such as full back Paula George, a PE and special needs teacher at ADT College in Putney, have the wholehearted backing of their employers. "They are exceptionally supportive. Sometimes the deputy head takes my lessons and I can go off and train. I can have time off more or less when I want it."
Pip Spivey also has an understanding boss - the headteacher at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset where she is head of girls' games is a keen cricketer. "He's a great sportsman so I think he knows what it's all about," she says.
But science teacher Janice Byford found that her career in the classroom could not compete with her sporting passion and at Christmas she handed in her notice. "It was really difficult to do this and work. One of them had to go and you only get a chance like this once in a lifetime."
The lottery award has been a boost but it's still peanuts compared with the riches of men's rugby. Giselle "Gizzy" Prangnell, a will o' the wisp fly half and veteran of 30 internationals, knows this only too well. Orleans Park school, where she is a PE teacher and head of year, is a five-minute jog from Twickenham stadium, the opulent home of English men's rugby.
As she pounds the streets around the mighty arena, Gizzy can contemplate the fact that, incredibly for a World Cup-winning team, the English women's XV have never played there. "That's my last remaining ambition," she says.
Her wages will at least be supplemented by a small allowance for the World Cup, but for the rest of the year, she follows a punishing timetable of work and training, with the pride of representing her country as a reward.
"By the time I get home from work it's about 5.30 or 6 o'clock. Then I have to go out and do my training. Then I eat my tea. Then it's time for bed and I'm absolutely knackered. It's like a juggling act," she reflects, "and sometimes you drop the lot on the floor." Not a familiar sensation for a player of her quality, the link between scrum half and three quarters, and perhaps the safest pair of hands on the pitch.
For a game with such a traditionally macho image, you might expect male diehards to scoff at the efforts of the "ladies". But watching an hour's practice session would soon disabuse any dinosaurs of such notions. Barely a pass was misplaced, and no tackle was shirked.
On the sidelines, three more teachers are suffering the consequences. Kate Knight, a newly-qualified PE teacher at Longslade Community College, Leicester, holds an icepack to her bruised shin and reflects on her chosen career which is, she says, like rugby: "very tiring but good fun".
Claire Frost, another PE practitioner from Eastbury Comprehensive in Barking, Essex, is also nursing a knock and wearing a T-shirt with the phrase "passing backwards, going forwards". Is that the motto of the women's game, I wonder? "We don't need one," ripostes Helen Clayton, from Chelmsford Sixth Form College's PE department. "Anyone that sees our game can tell it speaks for itself."
They certainly talk a good game. Ask coach Eric Field how he thinks they'll fare and his reply is unhesitating: "We'll win." Sadly his optimism was misplaced as New Zealand proved to be the team's nemesis once again. They knocked out England at the semi-final stage and went on to take the title.
* For more information about women's rugby, contact Sue Eakers, secretary, Rugby Football Union for Women, 11 Skibereen Close, Pontprennau, Cardiff CF2 7PT, or tel: 01234 261521