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Double first for University of Leicester women's rugby team

Leicester Mercury article, May 11, 2004 

On Friday, they made history by becoming the first women's rugby teams to play at Welford Road, home of Leicester Tigers. Leicester Mercury reporter Sarah Staples watched...

The smell of Deep Heat wafts down the corridor. "Tape! Tape! Does anyone have my tape?" shouts a voice above the noise and laughter of the packed changing room. A dozen pony-tailed heads shake.

The laughter isn't of the baritone variety you'd expect. It's girlish, youthful and it's in the changing rooms at Leicester Tigers - playing home of half the Rugby World Cup winning squad, players like Martin Johnson and Neil Back.

It's 30 minutes from kick-off and players from University of Leicester and De Montfort University (DMU) are preparing to write themselves into the Welford Road record books by becoming the first women's teams to step out on this hallowed sod.

"We are making history," says tonight's DMU captain Natalie Crozier, 21, before kick- off. "We are the first women players at Welford Road and I'm the first female black captain."

"Why do I play? Because I love the sport. You meet great people from different walks of life, and make some really good friends.

"They say the women's game is slower, but we've only been playing it for 15 or 20 years - we're still learning. Girls learn rugby when we're 12 to 15 years old - later than the men, who've often played it since they were children. So the skills level is behind them."

Does she find there's a stigma to playing rugby?

"Yes, you get called a lesbian and all the names under the sun," says dread-locked Natalie, dismissing the stereotype with a smile and a shrug. "But that's just by people who are ignorant."

Society, it seems, doesn't mind the idea of women getting dirty on Page Three - but not on the pitch.

It's a miserable, dark, wet evening and outside, the University of Leicester team is warming up watched by coach, former Tigers' player Matt Weir.

The team only started playing last year and already shows early promise: They've won the British University Sports Association second tier. "It's a big night for them," says Matt conceding this is an awesome venue.

"I know what it meant to me to play at Welford Road. The girls deserve this for their efforts. I think people might be surprised at their ability."

What's it like being the male coach of a female team? "I do get ribbing about it," he laughs.

"You can come in and listen to the team-talk," says second-year law student Nikki Poulter, 20, captain of the team, as she jogs back to the changing room after having her nails checked by the ref (something the men don't have to endure): "But don't expect any niceties."

She's not wrong. The edited highlights purged of expletives are reminiscent of Dr Who when the Daleks sweep round corners barking 'Exterminate!'

"I want something on the scoreboard in the first 10 minutes. Lift them off their feet. Dump them. Stare at your opposite number and tell them 'I'm going to tackle you'", she tells the 20-odd white faces sitting on the wooden benches around the room.

There's a knock on the door and a voice shouts two minutes. Through the walls, the De Montfort players can be heard jogging on the spot, their studs clashing against the concrete floor. It's an eerie, intimidating call to battle.

The teams are about to walk out on to one of the most famous rugby venues in Britain: Looking around at their young faces, filled with trepidation, you can almost hear the beat of their hearts.

The call comes and they run out on to the pitch as a roar goes up from the stadium. The first kick of the game has Leicester bearing down on De Montfort, within two minutes they score the first try. Nikki has her wish.

First-night nerves are in evidence; poor tackles, penalties conceded, nervous fingers that can't keep hold of the wet ball. It's to be expected. This is the biggest crowd they've ever had - and they're playing at Welford Road.

However, after the first 20 minutes, there were flashes of the sort of players that the girls could be: Crunching tackles that drew 'oooooo's' from the crowd and strong looking line-outs.

Tigers fan and rugby veteran Bob Walker, from Hinckley, is watching the game with friends, just out of interest. His opinion? "They're at the stage where if they were boys, they'd be if they were 14 or 15 years old," he says.

"They'll only get better. They need support and coaching at junior clubs. Lots of big clubs like Saracens have women's teams. It's time Tigers got one together."

After 25 punishing minutes each way, it was the University of Leicester's night, winning 15/5 over their local rivals courtesy of three tries by flyhalf Laura Turner.

"It's amazing, wonderful!" she says after their victory, "Can't wait for my next game." Captain Nikki proudly hugs the Tigers Best Bitter Cup, sponsored by Everards.

For the captain of DMU, Natalie, the mood is despondent. "Desolate. Today was our day to win. I'm very proud of the team and really proud of their season. They tried their hardest to win. It's discipline. We gave away too many penalties. But we'll rebuild. Next year, we'll beat them."

The players have far from disgraced themselves and yes, says Bob, as he waits for the men's varsity match, he'd watch another game. What's the difference between women's rugby and men's then? "There's more hugging in the women's game," he laughs.

* Find out more about women's rugby by visiting http://www.rfu-women.co.uk

Sarah Staples

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Last updated: 18 March 2004 11:20
Created by: Barbara Whiteman

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