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It’s a sizzling hot Tuesday in June and I’ve just learnt that the England women’s rugby team calls the weekly training day that I am joining “toughen-up Tuesday”. Half an hour later captain Katy Mclean, who will be leading the team into the Women’s Rugby World Cup next week, is yelling at me: “Suck it up Ollie – imagine it’s the last five minutes of the final,” as I fight every urge to topple over in agony and tap out. “Breathe slower, stand up straight, put your hands on your hips and show that you’re not hurting.”
Easier said than done. When I’d asked fly-half Mclean what “toughen-up Tuesday” might involve, the 28-year-old primary school teacher was direct: “It is what it says on the tin: everything from flipping tyres, farmer’s lifts, shuttle runs and plenty of mauling, which is a personal favourite.
“It’s basically an hour-and-a-half of utter beasting, and the hardest training of the week.”
Once on the pitch at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford, I am apprehensive as I buddy up with Mclean. We start off a series of six gradual sprints from the try line to the 22-metre line, and then beyond, with Stuart Pickering, formerly the strength and conditioning coach at Worcester Warriors, barking orders.
By the fourth sprint I am already flagging at the back of the 30 women, who are wearing heart monitors, rigged up for analysis. A mounted video camera scans our progress, though my performance would not make for pretty viewing. By sprint six I’m last by some way, and already blowing embarrassingly hard.
“Malcolms next,” shouts Pickering, referring to a rugby training drill that causes Mclean to wink at me. This involves more sprinting, yet you start with your stomach on the floor and push up to begin, drop down again at the end line to push off again, spin round and sprint twice more. Even explaining it is exhausting. By the sixth and last repetition I’m badly lagging behind. Everyone else has finished and are cheering me on, mostly ironically.
Then comes circuit training, a series of eight tasks which I attempt alongside Mclean. We hit tackle bags, shove huge metal contraptions to the next cone, lug weighted ropes and wrestle the ball off each other. It’s at this point – totally drained of energy, lungs bursting, legs heavy and head dizzy – that Mclean performs her coup de grâce. The 11st, 5ft 6in stand-off easily dispossesses me and I fail miserably to regain the ball in the 30 seconds we maul.
Following a brief water break, the squad divides for a 30-minute game. I slip on a bib and feign enthusiasm but am prevented from continuing by one of the coaches. “It’s best you don’t go on. You might get hurt to be honest, mate…”
Toughen-up Tuesday taught me that I am nowhere near as tough as Mclean and her squad, who have spent a huge amount of time preparing for the World Cup, which starts on Friday in France. They are especially determined to avenge their successive defeats, in 2010, 2006 and 2002, to the Black Ferns, their New Zealand counterparts.
For Mclean, this is the final strait of a marathon of hard graft, after the 2010 13-10 loss – a game in which she kicked five points. “I thought we were going to win last time – there was never a moment of doubt,” she says when we talk prior to the training session. “When we did lose, I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t speak to anyone about it for three months – and when I did, I was horrible about it.
“But you have to learn your lessons, and channel that hurt. We know we have to put in performances worthy of winning the World Cup, and you can’t blame anyone else, that’s why we’ve been training so hard.
“We have played New Zealand nine times since then; normally we only meet them in the World Cup final. There’s no fear factor now. We have won five of those games and have been able to demystify the Black Ferns aura. Most of the girls have faced down the haka, have beaten New Zealand and can see they are just a side like anyone else.”
The England skipper has won 69 caps since her international debut in 2007.
Her earliest memory is of her grandfather taking her as a five-year-old to Westcoe RFC to watch her father, David, play. “There is a picture of me on touchline wearing red wellies, and I was a kind of mascot for my dad’s team. Growing up, I was always in that environment, running around, rolling about in the mud with the boys, with a rugby ball. As soon as I could remember I wanted to be part of that.”
She played rugby as a child with boys aged from five to under-12s, but had to stop “because of insurance and age-group concerns”. She took up the game again when she was 16. “At that time there was no girls’ provision – it’s so different now, thankfully,” she says. A survey by the RFU shows that in 2012/13 there were nearly 15,000 registered girls and women rugby players every week (double the figure 10 years ago).
The England players are backed by a team of 12, including three coaches, yet the women are not professional – in effect, they play for their country in their spare time. Mclean has “amazingly” been handed a term-long sabbatical by her school, Bexhill Academy in Sunderland. In May this year she received an MBE for services to rugby; teammate and flanker Maggie “The Machine” Alphonsi was similarly honoured in 2012.
“It was amazing recognition. There are so many people who have helped us on our journey and got women’s rugby to where it is now. It’s kind of for everybody, rather than just me,” Mclean says. “Hopefully by the end of August I’ll have a World Cup winner’s medal, too, and I’ll have to have a sit down, to reflect on what has been an amazing year. But we have some tough challenges before then.”
For tickets and more information on England Women and the Women’s Rugby World Cup, visit www.rfu.com/england-rugby
Photographs: Tina Tina Hillier; Getty