Few people have done more for women’s rugby than Rachael Burford.
The 2014 World Cup winner, with 84 England caps, has just captained Harlequins to league title glory in the Premier 15s.
Off the field, the 34-year-old is spinning plates as a champion of the women’s game, including coaching future stars and taking on a new role with the International Rugby Players Association.
She’s also carving out a career in punditry, analysing the men’s game for TV and radio.
A NEW ROLE IN WORLD RUGBY
In March I became head of women’s rugby at the International Rugby Players Association. It’s something I’m really passionate about.
It’s not so much having the voice, it’s more like making sure players are consulted.
They’re at the coal face, they’re the ones who are on the pitch and training and they are the ones who are making the game happen, so making sure players have an input is really important.
It’s my third month in the role - I was doing it voluntary before but not as much as I’m doing now time-wise.
It’s been really good to talk to all the players around the world and understand their circumstances.
Some female teams don’t have representation, they don’t have anywhere to go or ask questions.
My role is to support all the unions who do have an association but also the ones that don’t, and also talk to players.
If they’re struggling with things, how do we make sure that’s going to change?
Moving forward, how do we make sure their programme’s in a much better place or their welfare is in a much better place?
It’s a rewarding job but trying to get my head around the different time zones kills me!
That’s been the most challenging part but it’s a really privileged job to have.
The International Rugby Players Association do so much work and now to have an official role with them shows the shift in mindset.
Beforehand, they kind of had a couple of people picking up on some women’s issues every now and then but not really having a focus.
Now it’s recognised that actually the women’s game needs to have focus.
There’s been a shift in the mindset of women’s rugby during Covid, and I don’t know if that’s because there’s not been much sport on, but you’ve had the likes of the BBC wanting to broadcast the autumn internationals and the Six Nations.
That’s helped the growth in a year when a lot of people were worried about women’s sport and sport in general.
It’s been on the rise since 2014, I would say, winning the World Cup and seeing the exponential growth, and it’s never taken a backward step.
I think the beauty of it is there’s so much more to come, which is quite scary considering women’s rugby is the fastest-growing sport and we’re still not fully tapping into the opportunities it presents.
It’s quite exciting where the game has still got so much growth to go.
It needs to be on TV regularly, it can’t just be one-off games, it needs to be readily available because you can’t inspire people if they can’t believe they can do it.
So I think that’s the big area, having the visibility because, naturally, if you have more visibility, you’re going to have more commercial opportunities, sponsorship opportunities and all of a sudden there’s more money in the game.
They’re probably the two things, making it visible and accessible, which then has such a big knock-on effect on participation, viewers, ticket sales, commercials and sponsorship.
TIMES HAVE CHANGED
I didn’t know there was an England women’s team when I was growing up.
Even when I was 13 or 14, on England development camps, I still wouldn’t have been able to tell you the England backline or what the results were or when they were playing, I genuinely had no connection with them.
When I was growing up, Micky Skinner was my idol when it should have been someone like Giselle Mather, who played centre and was a World Cup winner, but I didn’t know anything about her.
Even when I first got capped in 2006, I think about the marketing campaign and the advertisement and ticket sales for the 2006 World Cup, it was non-existent.
Unless you were playing in an international team or you were related to someone playing, you probably didn’t know there was a World Cup going on.
You look now, it’s ridiculous the amount of different campaigns that feed into it, the visibility of it, the fact World Rugby have dropped that it’s a women’s World Cup and now just say Rugby World Cup.
I know I have a responsibility, and a lot of players in my position who are playing the game, they recognise they can leave the game in a better place by speaking out.
Look at the likes of Shaunagh Brown, another Kent girl, the things she stands up for.
Poppy Cleall as well, she’s a player who stood up for women’s rights.
Someone like Sports Direct, who don’t post anything about women playing rugby, she confronts them and suddenly they’re putting it out there and young girls are seeing it.
We know we have responsibility and actually we are key in making those changes happen.
There’s never been a time when women have a bigger voice, in all aspects of life, so I think players use it well.
PICKING UP THE MIC
By getting women involved in punditry, whether it’s on the male side or the female side, you’re changing the narrative of what a young kid is looking at.
Right now there are so many stereotypes, women shouldn't play rugby or it’s not as good, stuff like that.
But what you’re going to have is young boys and girls, they look on the telly and see the likes of Alex Scott or Karen Carney in football, or Natasha Hunt and Nolli Waterman in rugby, and it’s normal.
You see this at five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 and when you’re forming opinions on things, you’ve been shaped to see this is normal.
We all see it now as ‘Oh, it’s really good a woman’s doing that’. Actually, we shouldn’t see it like that but we are at the moment because it’s not the norm for our generation.
Hopefully the next generation growing up won’t even question there’s a woman doing it.
I do a lot of radio for the men’s game. I’ve done some BBC and BT Sport, so I’ve actually commentated more on the men’s game than I have the women’s.
I love it, I think it’s really enjoyable. You’re talking about the game you love, you’re seeing it from a different angle and it’s nice to bring a different insight to people who are listening, because I’ve been in some of the situations that are happening in games.
I make sure I’ve done my research, I know what’s happening, I know who’s playing, I know background on players.
I think that’s one of the biggest things that have come out of people doing commentary, the importance of being well-prepared.
I’ve been really fortunate but a couple of women have been heavily criticised and I absolutely do recognise it.
I’d love someone to do an experiment where there’s a script, or a summary where the woman says exactly the same thing as the man, just to see what sort of response they get. It would be interesting.
COACHING STARS OF FUTURE
The Girls Rugby Club is the coaching business we have on the side.
That’s where most of my passion lies - giving young girls opportunities.
We’ve done six camps this week with girls all around the country and I think it comes back to when I was growing up, I was just a girl who played in a boys team and I didn’t know anything other than that.
What our camps do is bring young girls together so they can thrive in their own environment and we put on webinars and give them a platform where they can be inspired and have incredible moments.
Instead of it being Micky Skinner who’s popped down my local rugby club and I was like, ‘He’s my hero’, now It’s Emily Scarratt who’s popping down to the club and girls can look up to her and aspire to be her.
There’s a lot going on with the Girls Rugby Club movement and there’s more to come.
PASSION FOR PLAYING
I’m involved in the full-time programme at Harlequins, which is three days a week training and playing at weekends.
My passion for playing has never changed - I love playing.
Training can be debatable but I still have such a passion for playing and I think I’ve still got more to offer.
There’s no limit to your learning and development and as long as I have that kind of thirst, I’ll always keep putting my boots on.
I’ve got such a great team around me, players and leaders and the coaching staff and medical team that support and look after me, which allows me to continue playing while I have my feet and arms everywhere else.
We won the Premier 15s title this season at Quins. Just because we won, it didn’t change the fact I want to do it again next year, I want to go back-to-back.
That was my immediate thought, ‘What next, how can we be better, what can we do?
If you’ve still got that, you carry on, and I still feel I’d have been like that even if we’d lost.
But I’ve always said when I’m finished at elite level then I would go back to Medway and have a little run-out and just finish off my rugby where it all started, even if it’s one game.