Rugby Union player Rachael Burford speaks to Female First / Picture Credit: Girls Rugby Club
Rugby Union player Rachael Burford speaks to Female First / Picture Credit: Girls Rugby Club

Professional rugby union player Rachael Burford started out by playing in boy’s teams when she was younger, not particularly because she wanted to but because she had to – there was no local girls’ team.

Although this wasn’t an issue for her, Burford had recognised that some girls do struggle with their confidence and insecurity and therefore playing with boys would put them off the sport and deny the growth of the women’s game.

That’s why the winner of the 2014 Rugby Players’ Association England women’s player of the year set up Girls Rugby Club which runs camps and workshops for girls to get into the game and make friends with fellow rugby enthusiasts.

35-year-old Burford has also recently taken up the role of Head of Women’s Rugby at the International Rugby Players Association which further shows her passion and commitment for wanting to improve the women’s side of the game.

She spoke about her rugby union journey, explained why she wanted to set up Girls Rugby Club and revealed what she thinks rugby needs to do to be more gender equal.

How did you get into rugby in the first place?

Right back to when I first started there’s like an image of me crawling along the rugby club floor and there’s a rugby ball next to me. But that’s probably not playing, so I was around six years old which is the time when you could first start playing. My mum played, my dad played, my sister played – so I was always at the club, they kind of ran the club so it was always going to happen as and when I was allowed to.

What does it feel like when you represent the country in World Cup competitions?

To be honest I really like pressure. I was selected pretty young into the senior squad. I think that stood me in good stead in a way because I didn’t have the pressure on me because I was young, and I was uncapped obviously. I went to a major tournament, I went to a World Cup, I was uncapped, I was the youngest on tour, so I almost didn’t have any pressure on me. There probably was but because I was young and was just thinking no, I’m here to learn and look up to people and I won’t play that much.

I think that then allowed me to settle in and then because I went to the World Cup in 2006 straight after that a lot of players retired and it was almost like I was seen as an experienced player because so many had left when actually I wasn’t, I had two caps and I’d been to one tour, like one senior tour. But I had to step up to the role very quickly and I took great honour in that.

I think the bigger the games got the more I enjoyed the pressure and the time to step up and deliver. I welcome the pressure; some players are different. Every time I’d play for my country, I’d just see it as an honour and to love and enjoy it. It’s a privilege to be able to go out there and play for your country. There’s been times where pressure does get to you, but I don’t think subconsciously I was ever like oh my God I’m playing for my country! It was more like this is incredible, I’m buzzing about this.

What was that feeling like when you received a full-time England contract?

It was actually quite difficult initially because for most of my career I was always working full time or doing two part time jobs so it could fit around my rugby. And then when we were full time, we then got our evenings back, our weekends back – some of us didn’t know what to do with it. That was the biggest highlight, it was like wow you can actually just rest and recover and then we start again tomorrow and then have a bit more rest.

I think that was the most significant thing, the rest and recovery and not rushing to another thing or finishing work and getting to the gym and then coming home, eating dinner and going to bed. That was probably what was so significant about going professional and adapting to that and allowing yourself to rest and stop, like okay my day is now done at four o’clock, what should I do, how should I maximise this?

We were absolutely ecstatic at the fact that we could call it our job. There was lots of things that weren’t right with the whole set up, it was new, we hadn’t done it before, there was lots of questionable things that you look back on and think how on earth did we do some of those things? But the fact that you could call it your job was everyone’s dream really.

What job did you have before you were offered a full-time contract playing rugby?

I’ve always had jobs that kind of facilitate my rugby, so I worked for the RFU as a community rugby coach and that allowed me to be flexible. I worked for myself doing personal training and coaching – just anything, I was a nanny.

So, I used to do two jobs, I used to be a personal trainer in the City of London which used to start at five in the morning and I’d finish around 11am and then I’d use that middle block to do my training and then I’d go and be a nanny from three until seven and then one some nights I’d go training from seven until nine.

I’d say for 10/15 years in my life my professional career didn’t really exist because I was just doing what I could to survive to allow me to be as full time as I could be and flexible so if I had a three-week tour coming up, I could just drop everything and go. It’s only probably in the last three or four years where I’ve been working on my professional career outside of rugby.

How did it feel to be appointed as the Head of Women’s Rugby at the International Rugby Players Association earlier this year and what does the role consist of?

It’s a really significant role and a massive progression for me in my career. I’ve been doing a lot of player representation since probably 2012/2013, I guess it was in an official capacity with the International Rugby Players Association, talking to them about player matters and all things going on within women’s rugby. But there wasn’t much of a focus at that time on the women’s game. And then during 2014 when we did go fully professional, I was then appointed to the RPA board because we were now professionals, so you needed representation.

I’ve always done behind the scenes work with the International Players Association, working with various committees for the purpose of player representation and this was kind of a natural progression because I was doing a lot of this work anyway but on a voluntary basis whenever time allowed. And then for it now to be able to go to a part time job at the moment was such a significant progression for the game and also shows how significant the women’s game is to the International Players Association and to World Rugby. It’s just a huge significant step.

Picture Credit: Girls Rugby Club
Picture Credit: Girls Rugby Club

You founded Girls Rugby Club, so could you explain what it is and why you wanted to set it up?

I guess it all got set up from being in an all-boys environment growing up and it’s still such the case at the moment. That’s not to say that my experience growing up was bad or anything like that, I really enjoyed my time playing in the boy’s team. But at the same time there was never any environment for me to experience other than that so that was kind of the main bulk of why I wanted to set it up to give young girls from whatever age they are to have an all-female environment where they could thrive, and they could be themselves and be challenged in a different way. That was the whole point of setting that up.

Girls and boys, and adults as well, we all have our insecurities and confidence issues at times and some deal with it better than others, but I notice so much within girls that they do have confidence issues and self-esteem, so I wanted to create environments where they’re really comfortable but challenged and thrive. Some clubs don’t have girl’s teams so they will also have to leave their club and go and join another club which is really daunting.

At 12 years old you’ve got to leave everything that you know and join a whole new team which is really, really difficult. If you think about school years, being at school and not knowing somebody and that’s a similar environment.

So, if we can set up workshops and camps where it can bring girls from all across the area together then suddenly, they have familiarity, then they’ve made some new friends and then maybe a year down the line when they’re moving clubs, they know some players from that club because of the Girls Rugby Club. It’s trying to bridge things together and close the gap really and that’s what Girls Rugby Club is about.

We want to help all girls within the game by looking at the where are the gaps, where are the pathways, what are the barriers and then what can we do to break that barrier down, so they no longer exist. We’re not going around reinventing the wheel or starting new things, what we want to see is like right okay there’s a real problem in this area, there’s no girls’ teams in like a 20-mile radius, what can we do? Let’s hold some camps, let’s build the momentum. So, there’s that side of things, like the physical workshops.

Then the other side of it is we’re raising awareness around so many things like female health welfare – it’s just not looked at. Nobody talks about how I’m coaching a female therefore I should understand the female better. We’re kind of diving into all of those issues as well and just talking about them and getting the best people who know and are experts in those areas to discuss them.

I don’t know everything, some of the other coaches don’t know everything but we go out and we look for the best people and we bring them into the environment, and we’ve done this whole player welfare series which is like the first of its kind and in all my years playing internationally we’d never dove into half of the things and issues that the Girls Rugby Club is talking about. All our webinars on female health and menstrual cycles and working with females and how many women have played rugby, given birth and then came back from rugby? Like where’s the support network? We just want to be a driver for change. We want to raise the questions where they’re not being raised. We’re not troublemakers – what we want to do is talk about things and help find solutions. What we want to do is inspire girls to play the game and give them incredible moments that last forever that keep them in the game.

The reason why I stay in the game is from when I was 13/14 years old, and we were all chucked into the back of a minibus, and we’re driving across the country to go and play in a festival – incredible moments like that where it keeps you in the game and you make friendships and long-lasting relationships.

What needs to be done to make rugby gender equal?

I think there needs to be a raising of awareness. It’s trying to happen top down when you look at the likes of unions and national governing bodies where their boards are becoming more diverse. I think we just need to keep hitting it home. There was a post put on LinkedIn the other day about a cancelled board meeting and it was all the exact same person if you know what I mean, it was all male, white male and it was like where is the diversity? Where is the potential creativity? We just have to keep celebrating where it is happening and use that as a champion.

My local rugby club have just recently announced the first ever female chairperson which is incredible. We should be grabbing hold of that and saying well done to this club because you see the value, you understand it, you can see the value you’re going to get by having diverse people in a room and on boards. It’s so critical, if you’re not in a room you can’t have the discussions. And if you’re not in the room then those discussions don’t even get on the table sometimes.

That is why it’s so important to have the diversity on boards for the growth and development, but also to be challenged. If you had the same people all on the same page the whole time, there’s never going to be a challenge or any progress.

The people we’ve got involved at Girls Rugby Club, our advisory group, I mean we’ve got a ridiculous number of names on the board. But there’s kind of parts to that where we know that you can’t just have women talking about the women and girls’ game.

We have a male advisory board who are advocates of the game and have great experience and knowledge to support what we’re trying to do. More so than that is our Girls Rugby Club 15. I’ve been part of sports where we’ve either never consulted or you’re consulted really late as a player and that kind of leads into why I do the role at the Rugby Players Association.

With the Girls Rugby Club 15 we’ve selected 15 girls who can then tell us what they like, what they don’t like, what they want to see more of, what are their barriers? Because it’s all well and good me talking about my barriers from 20 years ago but they might not exist now, and they might be very different. That’s why it’s so, so important why we have this young advisory group to guide us so that we can then facilitate and support the generation that’s coming through.

Words by Lucy Roberts for Female First, who you can follow on Twitter, @Lucy_Roberts_72.

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