ON AUGUST 17, 2014, the lives of 26 members of the England’s women’s rugby team changed forever as they could now call themselves ‘world champions’.
But has their success transformed the sport and helped to breakdown the perceived barriers faced by girls looking take up rugby?
The Observer’s rugby reporter Geoff Berkeley spoke to World Cup-winner Natasha Hunt and her former coach at Malvern Rugby Club, Debbie Danby, to find out what England’s achievement has done for the game.
FROM appearances at BBC Sports Personality of the Year to invitations to Wimbledon’s Royal Box, Natasha Hunt has come a long way since her days in Malvern.
“Winning the World Cup has been completely and utterly life-changing,” she said. “So many things have happened which has just blown us all away.”
Her dedication and talent clearly separated her from the rest as the young scrum half went on to figure heavily in England’s rise to World Cup glory 12 months ago.
But having come into a sport which has been perceived as a ‘masculine game’ the 26-year-old admitted she would not have got anywhere without the support of Malvern Rugby Club.
“It was awesome as the girls at Malvern were just absolutely quality and the atmosphere at the club was just fantastic,” she said.
“It is now one of the fastest growing sports in the county, so without the invaluable support of local clubs, who are giving the opportunities for players to actually have a go, it would never be as successful as it is now.”
Natasha was encouraged to pursue the game by Debbie Danby who spotted her while working as a PE teacher at Dene Magna School in Gloucestershire before moving to Malvern where she was a coach.
Debbie now runs the junior section at a club in Burton, Derbyshire, and she has seen first-hand the impact Natasha and her 25 England teammates have done to the sport.
“I think it has grown greatly,” she said. “Seeing the World Cup on the TV was brilliant, so the press coverage has definitely helped as our mini juniors section has grown a lot.
“Now you see a lot of schools try to encourage girls to play rugby from an earlier age and then there are local clubs out there to support them. This means the standard coming through is a lot higher as there are a lot more opportunities out there for young girls to play.”
According to latest statistics released by the Rugby Football Union, 20,000 girls and women have registered as playing in the last 12 months, which compares to 15,000 a year ago.
And Debbie believes the rise has also been partly down to how people view the sport now as she did not think ladies rugby players were considered as ‘butch or masculine’ anymore.
“I don’t think there is stereotyping going around anymore,” she said. “I think players, particularly male players, are more accepting to girls playing as they have seen some quality play at that highest level, which has in turn given more respect to the players.”
Natasha also felt that the perception of women’s rugby had been transformed in recent years, adding: “I think the barriers have been pretty much smashed down by now.”
However, the pair both insisted more work still needed to be done to keep rugby in the media spotlight, while Steve Grainger, development director at the RFU, told The Observer they were hoping to see 25,000 women and girls playing contact rugby by 2017.
“The strategy seeks to grow the game by focusing on four main areas – ensuring a warm and welcoming club environment, providing local options for every need, ensuring that the player pathway is clear and connected, and ensuring that rugby is a real option for females when considering their sporting and fitness options.”
Natasha has now set her sights on competing for England Sevens at the Rio Olympics next year. But having recently earned a professional contract, she also recognises she has a key role to play in battling for women’s rugby’s cause.
“There are only 20 of us which are full-time whereas a vast majority of our forwards are in full time employment, so there is definitely work to do,” she said.
“But things are definitely moving in the right direction.”