Transcript of the Tough Girl Podcast with Catherine Spencer - Former England Women’s Rugby Union pla



Sarah: Hello and welcome to The Tough Girl Podcast. I'm your host Sarah Williams.

The Tough Girl Podcast, as you know, is all about motivating and inspiring women.

As you may have noticed, there's been a lot of information in the papers recently about the rugby world cup, which is being hosted by England. I wanted to take advantage of that, because rugby has been seen as this male dominated sport, but is it?

I've got a very special guest with me today, Catherine Spencer, who is an English rugby union player. Captain England at the 2010 Rugby Women's World Cup, and she's had over 51 cups for England, which is absolutely fantastic.

We are going to be talking all about rugby.

Catherine, welcome to the show.

Catherine: Hi Sarah.

Sarah: I want to go back to the beginning. What first got you inspired about rugby?

It has traditionally been seen as a man's sport. I think it was only ... I can't remember when it was early 20th Century, women weren't allowed to play it.

Catherine: Yeah, it is a relatively new sport if you look at it in context. It has seen growth, massive growth really in the last 5 years even.

I started because I have 2 brothers that both played rugby, a dad that played rugby, and a mom that was really sporty and would have played rugby if it was around. One of my brothers, actually my twin brother, so I played mini rugby with him at my home club in Folkestone, without giving my age away, about 30 years ago, and I was probably one of the only girls playing mini rugby at that time.

It was very very unusual, and parents and coaches were quite bemused when I was still on the pitch when the starting whistle would go.

That's how I started, through my family really. Then my home club folks had actually started a women's club when I was about 14, 15, and I've played since then, really.

Sarah: With mini rugby, is there an age that you can play up to?

Catherine: There is indeed, and 12's the last age group, so you can play up to 11 in mixed teams with boys. Of course when I was playing there was no girl's rugby or such. There was no age grade rugby or not, I was just very lucky that my home club started a women's team.

When I finished the under 12 season, I thought I wouldn't be able to play again till I was 18 when I went off to university, or found a senior club.

Now it's very very different. Girls and boys can play mini rugby together, and now there's under 13's, under 15's, and under 18's teams for girls. It's a lot more girls will be getting on in clubs, and in schools as well.

Sarah: Which is really fantastic to see. I suppose as well at that age, if you were a boy you'd always had played rugby with girls, it wouldn't be seen as something different or something odd, it would just be seen as normal.

Catherine: It's definitely becoming more normal now, girl's rugby.

When I used to stay about I played, there was definitely a few raised eyebrows and a few funny comments, but it's much more accepted now. It's much more widespread through the country, and there's still more potential for growth, most definitely.

There's still a lot of clubs that don't have women or girl's rugby. There's lots and lots of schools that don't play women and girl's rugby, but looking back 5, 10, 15 years, there's much more availability for girls and women that want to play now.

Sarah: Why do you think it's suddenly become so much more popular over the past 5 or 10 years?

Catherine: I'm incredibly biased, and I think it's the best sport in the world. I always say, and I've always said this, and I always will.

One of the best things about rugby for males and females is that it's so inclusive, and that is a position on the pitch for anyone regardless of your shape and size. You could hate running, and you could hate cross country. You could not be great at football, but actually could go and be a star of your rugby team, and I think that's what's so great about it.

We could go with the growth in women's rugby. I think I've seen a growth in women's team sport, generally. If you look at cricket, and football as well, and also netball to a degree with a back to netball program, there does seem to be a growth in women's team sports over the last few years.

Fantastic to see, and alongside team sports the, "It's okay to be a woman and be strong." I think there's people who struggled with the idea of that oh, 5, 10 years ago, and it's actually becoming pretty popular now.

Sarah: You headed off to Cardiff where you continue to play rugby, and I suppose one of the comments that I was wondering if you get, because rugby is a physical game. You are tackling each other, I imagine you get comments of, "You're not going to get hurt?" How do you cope with how physical the game is? Do you think that's a misconception?

Catherine: I think so. It is a contact sport, and I don't think we should shy away from that. It is also a sport of evasion and agility. It brings in so many different skill sets, but yes. There is tackling, and there is contact in the game of rugby, which I personally love.

Actually a lot of those comments come from women themselves. I think rugby's a sport that looks a bit tougher than it actually is. It doesn't feel so tough when you're in the middle of it.

There have been comments over the years by women and men, but I say it's all relative, really. We're not going up against men and we never would. We're playing against women, and yeah there are some massive hits that go on.

That's a good thing for it, that's a good thing about it.

Getting back to my comment before, if that's okay. It's okay to be strong and be female. I don't think there's anything like it. I don't think you can replicate the sport very well. I know friends of mine that used to play and have now finishes playing for various reasons, and they say they really miss it. They really miss the contact side of rugby, and struggle to find that in any other sport.

Not every male is suited to rugby, not every male likes playing in a contact sport, and that's okay, and that's the same with females.

Sarah: I am going to ask you a question though, because I've never played rugby. I've always thought, because I've seen some of the tackles, what happens if you get a shoulder in your boob? It must really hurt.

Catherine: Yeah sometimes. I'll tell you what happens more actually, is sometimes if you get the ball kicked to you, or a really strong pass or something, and it just lands in that particular area and on the boob, it can be sometimes quite painful.

To be honest with you, when you're playing in a game, you don't really notice stuff like that.

Quite a few girls and women now wear pads and shoulder pads and stuff like that. I never have, I've got enough of my own padding, but actually during the game, you don't tend to notice those knocks and bruises and stuff. It's quite often in the shower afterwards you notice a bruise or two.

Sarah: I think what was interesting is when you talked about this massive growth in women's team sports, which I think is so fantastic. I think what you have is you have a lot of males who will always continue to play football every Sunday. You'll go down to the park for some 5 a-side.

They may not be very good at it, but they have a kick around, and they have that male bonding, and it's the relationship building you learn from that. You can learn so much from team sports.

You went to Cardiff, you started playing rugby for the university, you obviously did incredibly well. How did you progress, or how did you move forward with your rugby to get to the professional level?

Catherine: I really developed as a player at Cardiff uni. We had two great coaches. After university I went back home for a year, played club rugby again for a year, played county and regional rugby.

Then I went off and did the whole traveling thing for a year. I wanted to see the world. Took a year off rugby, but it was during that year that I really thought, "Do you know what? I think I'm okay at this. I think I'm all right at rugby. I think I can give it a bit of a go."

When I got home from traveling, a week later my coach put me forward to some trials. I got through those trials, and attended these summer training days, and from that was selected to attend effectively England trials they used to have back then called the 2 for 4s, which involved the top 80, 90 players in the country, including the current England players at the time, came together, put into four different squads, and played a series of games like the two or three weekends.

I did all right in those trials, and got into what was then called England Academy, which just sat just below the England elite playing squad, and was in that for a year and then moved up to the elite squad.

Yeah, it was just a series of training and trials that got me eventually into the elite squad. Then I got my first cap because a player who played number 8, which is my position, got injured.

Sarah: You mentioned rugby, it's a really inclusive sport, so depending if it's for all shapes, it's for all sizes, so depending on what you want to do, there will be a position available for you.

You mentioned that you play number 8. Can you tell us a bit more about position and your role and why it suited you?

Catherine: In rugby, to speak fairly simply. A team's made up of 15 players, and within that you have eight players that are called forwards, tend to be a bit bigger and stronger, which I was one. Have seven players that make up the backs, who tend to be generally a bit faster, a bit more agile, and they tend to be the players that given a bit of space can sprint down the pitch.

I played in the forwards, and if people can imagine there's something called the scrum. They probably would have seen it on TV recently when eight players from each side are packed down against each other. I play number 8 which is the player at the back of the scrum, so you're included in the scrum, but when the ball comes out the back, you control the ball with your feet before it gets further out to the backs.

Number 8 I think is the best position ever, but you get to be involved.

You're quite in the middle of the game, get the ball in your hands quite a lot, you get to run with the ball, and you're in the middle of everything, really.

I love it, it's a great position. When I became captain, it's a nice position to captain from, because you're always on the front foot, if you like. You have an ability to get the team to go forward.

Sarah: How old were you when you got your first cap?

Catherine: Oh I was actually relatively old, if you like. I was 24 when I got my first cap. Nowadays, players seem to be a lot younger. Even though I've been playing for a long time, longer than most other people. I chose to go to university, I didn't want to do any uni rugby stuff there, and I chose to go away traveling. It's after that that I then went and worked to get into the setup, and looking back, I'm really pleased that I did it that way.

Sarah: First cap, let me just clarify. First cap is basically you put the shirt on for England, but you weren't captain of the squad.

Catherine: No, so in sports, and it's similar to other team sports as well, every time you go out, you run out and represent your country at the full senior team, you get what's called a cap. You get actually given a physical cap on your first time that you play. Mine's at home at my parent's displayed in a little cabinet. It's a purple velvet cap if you like, but you don't actually get given a cap every time you play. You get given a cap on your first cap, but you count the amount of times you play for your country as caps. I actually went on to get 63 caps for England in total.

Sarah: Representing your country is a huge honor. You've obviously, you've been playing rugby since such a young age, and you've worked your way up through the ranks, through the super teams, through the elite squad into the England Academy, in the elite squad. You're now representing your country. Can you describe what that felt like?

Catherine: I can remember it really vividly, actually. England women like the men have every year, in February and March, have the Six Nations Championship, which is a tournament which competes us by England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Italy.

We always have the same fixtures honed away, fixtures as the men. It was during the 2004 Six Nations that I got my first cup. I was asked to travel out to Scotland, we had an away game with Scotland. Because of injury I got selected into the squad, so you have 15 players starting on the pitch.

Well now you have eight, but back then you had seven players on the subs bench that are there either to cover injury, or for tactical replacement. I was on the bench for this Scotland game.

First time I'd ever been called away with England. Pretty nervous, and back then our coach, there wasn't much of a turnover of players.

He didn't bring many new players in very often, so it was quite daunting for me. I was still playing [inaudible 00:12:07] and I didn't know any of these players, but nonetheless traveled up to Scotland with this squad, and was part of that weekend. Another tradition that we do within the Englands when we set up is every time you get your first call up, so you travel away with the senior squad, you get presented with a rose the night before the game, along with what we call shirt presentation. Everyone gets presented their match shirts for the next day. It was a really special occasion, I got presented with this rose, I was part of the squad, but I didn't actually get on the pitch the next day.

I traveled all the way to Scotland, but didn't play any rugby. Went home and thought, "Well if nothing else happens, it was a pretty good experience. Got this rose, I was part of the squad. Not many people get to do that."

Went back to work, and then the following week the coach phoned me up and he was like, "We need you." This is on a Friday. He told me after the Scotland game didn't need me, the other player was fit again, I wasn't needed. I didn't think much more of it, and then about 4:00 on a Friday, he phoned me up. He was like, "Oh my goodness, the other player's injured, we're going to need you back on the squad." I had to whiz home, get me my stuff, and meet the team up near Richmond in London ready for a game against Wales the next day.

I really didn't think I'd be playing, I thought it'd be similar to the week before against Scotland. I really thought I was there just to cover any injury. We were playing at the [inaudible 00:13:23] Steep. About 20 minutes to go, I was on the bench. We were beating Wales fairly well, and then I heard my name and I was like, "Oh my goodness."

They said, "All right, Catherine Spencer, I want you to go on."

I remember vividly standing on the side of the pitch waiting to be called on, waiting to swap with the other player, and I remember thinking, "Oh my goodness, this is incredible."

My parents had come to watch, and then I ran onto the pitch.

As I ran on, I remember thinking, as some of your words saying, "Oh my goodness, I'm representing my country. I'm representing my country. I'm representing England at rugby."

I just kept thinking that over and over in my head as I was running onto the pitch to take my place.

Then the next 20 minutes were a bit of a blur, if I'm honest. We won fairly well against Wales, and I got a little try on my debue which was quite special.

Then I was just on an absolute high for about a week after that, and my parents as well. Talk about proud parents, they were definitely that.

That week what was really nice, by dad bought a bottle of Port for each of the coaches that had coached me at my home club at Folkston, so leading up to that is the coaches that coached me when I was 8, 9, 10, 11. We went round to see them all and took them a bottle of Port.

It was an amazing, amazing moment running onto the pitch, and then an amazing few days after as I was on an absolute high, and I was like, "Wow, if that never happens again, I've played for England." Of course I definitely wanted more.

Sarah: Fantastic, and I think that is such a lovely touch as well. It's so nice to look back and thank the people that have helped you on this journey and developed you from when you were 8, 9, under 11's, under 12's, and all the way through to actually playing for your country.

It's a huge honour, and just absolutely fantastic. I could actually picture myself almost in your shoes, going to the stadium and seeing the crowds. I could imagine how proud my parents would be if I'd done something like that.

One of the areas I just want to go back to is actually you mentioned about the teamwork, that you didn't know the other players when you first got called up to Scotland, and then you're playing Wales.

How does that work if you haven't played with them before, you haven't been training with them in the buildup to something like the Six Nations?

Catherine: I had trained with them to a certain degree. I was in the elite squad, and I didn't play against them week in, week out. I didn't play in the same cup as any of them, they were all playing the [inaudible 00:15:47] and I was playing the Folkestone. I knew of a few of them.

Then into the elite squad I was playing for the A team, which was the team below the senior team. Then when I was called up into the squad you're right, I'd never actually played ... I played alongside a couple of them in trials, but I'd never played in the England team with them, and I hadn't trained as a squad with them. It was quite difficult, actually.

As I said before, the coach at that time didn't bring a lot of new players in. It was difficult, and I was someone that I guess I did struggle with confidence in the early days and had to really build that as a player and rugby certainly helped me to do that.

It was a bit of a challenge definitely, but the coach was really good, and he selected me for a reason, and he selected me for my strength, my ability to carry the ball forward, and I just went on and did the things that I knew that I did well, and built on that over the next year or two.

Initially yeah, it was hard, but the other girls in the squad were brilliant. There were people that I looked up to, they were my role models really. Some of them particularly, and to take to the pitch alongside them was an incredible moment.

They were fantastic, and I think that's something you develop playing in a sport like that is how to interact with people, how to build relationships with people quite quickly sometimes.

When you go on a pitch, when you go on a rugby pitch, everything you do is to help and support the people around you, so you have to quickly gain each other's trust and respect.

It was hard, it was a tough process, but it was one that was brilliant and made a little bit easier by the players around me.

Sarah: In terms of confidence, you just said it yourself. You lacked that little bit of confidence and you built it as a player, and obviously scoring your first try in your debue match must have helped build your confidence.

How else have you developed your confidence over the years?

Catherine: Yeah, it's really difficult. I would say I was necessarily an un-confident person when I first started playing, but I found it difficult.

Again, because the club I was playing for wasn't in the [inaudible 00:17:49], and for ages I had to get over this, "What am I doing here? Why am I here? I shouldn't be here. I'm not good enough." I eventually realized actually by the way that I played on the pitch, I was good enough, and there was a reason that I was there.

It was difficult to growing that confidence. Playing in the sport helped me with that, and it became more and more apparent actually when I became captain.

I had to begin the process again of developing that confidence, and probably more as captain I talk about this quite often, I have had this ability to pretend that I was this really confident leader.

You don't actually get trained how to do it. No one gives you lessons in how to captain your country, so for the first couple of years I developed this kind of ability to pretend, I think, that I was that really, really, confident leader.

After a couple of years I realized that I just was. I wasn't pretending anymore, but I was definitely learning on the job most definitely.

I think the way I developed the confidence was just to make decisions. Just make decisions and go for them and do them, but it was definitely difficult. It's definitely helped me now in what I'm doing now. It was a long process, I think people need time to develop their skills.

Sarah: Absolutely. I just want to pick up on something that you said, that you have these thoughts where, "I'm not good enough, why have they picked me?" I think a lot of women suffer from this. Not necessarily in sports, but in life, in jobs, in their career, where ... I know that I've done it whenever I was promoted Id be thinking, "Am I good enough? Can I actually do this job?"

It's interesting what you said about almost fake it till you make it, that you just pretended and then suddenly one day you realized that actually, "Yes, I'm good at this job. I'm doing this job, I'm making the decisions, I'm making this happen." Becoming captain and leading the team, new responsibilities that you had to take on as that leader. How did you take on those responsibilities?

Catherine: Again, that was a hard job. We'd had our world cup in 2006 and had quite a few player retired. We had a couple of players that continued through to 2007, including Sue Day, who took over the captain C for a year after 2006, it was [inaudible 00:20:04] prior to that. I knew that Sue Day was retiring after 2007 Six Nations, and and there was myself and probably a crop of four or five other players who'd suddenly become the senior players.

Sarah: Can I just ask, did you want to become captain?

Catherine: Yes. To answer it, the short answer.

I'd taken time to really think about this, and I understood that I was one of the senior players, I was playing pretty well. Id won the player of the year award the previous year.