England Rugby union player
Talking Rugby, the pay gap and helping young women to find their passion.
There are certain career paths that are not seen as immediately obvious or even entirely viable by young girls and, let’s be honest, the parents spurring them on. Being a woman in the world of professional rugby is sadly still one of those paths less trodden, with the women’s game being decades behind the men’s when it comes to funding and crowd support, but the tides are slowly changing. The women’s game is now the fastest growing sport in the UK and The FEMININE spoke to one woman who is undoubtedly going to be part of the force that changes women’s rugby as we know it.
Rachael Burford is remarkable, serene and speaks with the quiet confidence of someone who is living her life on her terms. She plays for England Women’s Rugby and the Harlequins Ladies Rugby team, she is a Rugby World Cup winner, has an impressive 78 caps under her belt and was the first woman representative to be elected to the Rugby Players Association board.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Rachael however is the change she is making to the lives of young girls with the Burford Academy; a camp which helps young girls find their passion for rugby, gives them a step up into the professional game and, most importantly, helps them find their place in a society where being big or physical isn’t always seen as an asset.
We talk to Rachael about her career, her passion and the game that is changing before our eyes.
You play for Harlequins Ladies club and as an England International in a career that spans more than a decade. Can you tell us the proudest moment of your career so far?
It would probably be winning the Rugby World Cup in 2014. It had been a dream of mine for a really long time and to have done it was really special. Earning your first cap is also a very proud moment because you’ve worked so hard to get there and for your family to see and be a part of it is really special.
When did you earn your first international cap for England?
It was in 2006 in Canada, I had just turned 20. It was at the World Cup so it was quite special and unique in that uncapped players aren’t normally taken to a major competition and it was a really proud moment for me because my dad got to see it.
What drew you to playing rugby in your early years?
Dad was the reason we all played, my mum, two sisters and I. It was a classic scenario, he did everything down at our local rugby club, Medway – he would run the bar, do the books, be the secretary and the fixtures man, so it became our home for many years and still is now.
There’s a picture of me as a baby crawling on the floor at Medway and I’m pretty sure there’s a rugby ball in shot, so it was inevitable that I would follow in those footsteps.
Your mother Renata and your sister Louise played rugby in the same team at Medway RFC where you spent the first 10 years of your career. What was it like to share the field with members of your family?
It was really good fun. I made a conscious effort to make sure that happened because I was living in Bath at the time at a rugby academy, but I was adamant that I wanted to do a season at Medway with them. When you saw press releases that said; ‘Burford passes to Burford and Burford then scores’ it’s really, really cool and it’s a legacy still talked about today.
'It was a really positive step forward. At the time I didn’t realize how big a deal it was, but when the BBC started releasing reports, that was when I really started to see that actually it shouldn’t be like this'
Image credit - The RFU Collection via Getty Images
In 2015 you became the first professional women’s representative to the Rugby Players Association board, what was that like and what kind of change were you able to effect during your time in that role?
It’s a really positive step forward for a woman to be represented on a rugby board. At the time I didn’t realize how big a deal it was, but when the BBC started releasing reports, that was when I really started to see that actually it shouldn’t be like this — it should be a normal thing that women are represented in those kinds of roles.
Being around so many members on the board who have so much experience was a real opportunity to learn, listen and take back the things that I felt could make an impact to both the England Women’s team and the Harlequins Ladies team.
The thing is, the men want to hear from you, hear your opinion and because you’re the only female in the room, everyone does listen. The boys are really supportive and share information they think will help us grow our game, on and off the pitch.
Last year for the first time the RFU introduced match and training fees for all England women’s players meaning that some could earn up to £5,000 for the whole Autumn International series, which is a step in the right direction. However the England men’s match fees can total upwards of £20,000 per game. How do you feel about the disparity in pay between English men’s and women’s Rugby?
Where we are now with 15’s game is that the RFU will invest £2.4 million for 3 years into the Tyrrells Premier 15's clubs. The rationale behind it is, if I use myself as an example, that as an England player I’m always going to excel and keep getting better because I’ve got resources from England; but my Harlequins team mate, Holly Myers does all of her own gym work and doesn’t have any infrastructure. So we’re never going to develop other players or see anyone else move up because they don’t have that off-pitch support which makes all the difference.
Hopefully at the end of those 3 years, professionalism can start to come in. I know a lot of clubs want to be able to offer their players contracts, but we’re way off that point. 90% of players still work full time outside of rugby, so it’s going to take a few years to be in a good position.
What is the feeling within the women’s teams about the vast disparity in pay?
None of us get angry or upset about it, because it’s our choice to play and we love what we do. Men’s professionalism has been going for 20+ years and we’re still in our infancy, so I think we have to be realistic about where we are — we’re at the starting point. Who wouldn’t want to get paid exactly the same, not just in the world of sport, but women everywhere. But at the same time it’s got to be commercially viable and at the moment we’re not.
If someone said to me ‘you can never be paid for this, but will you still play?’ My answer would always be a yes.
Marketability and ticket sales must have a direct impact on the viability of player fees. The women’s games often sell less than 10% of the volume of the men’s games. In your opinion, what needs to change for women’s rugby to start attracting bigger crowds?
I think the first thing is that we’ve got to have a product that is exciting and that people want to go and see. I think the media have a huge part to play in advertising and supporting us. The other side of it is for our male counterparts to support and talk about what we’re doing as well. Hearing those voices talk about our game is a great credit. It’s about clubs taking the initiative as well and not being reliant on the RFU to try and make all of this happen, it’s got to come from everybody.
The World Cup did show how positive the media could be. We are thankful that they invest that much with us and it shows that there is an interest; people do want to watch us and see what we do.
Your passion for rugby flows into your life off the field with the Burford Academy for girls. Can you tell me more about your inspiration behind the academy?
The Burford Academy came in 2016, I was thinking about what I was going to do post rugby and I thought, well I’ve always worked in rugby, I used to work for the RFU as a community rugby coach and I noticed there was an opportunity to help a section of girls.
You’re allowed to play in mixed teams until you are 12 years old and then you have to play in the girl’s team. A lot of clubs can’t facilitate a girl’s team because there might be 5 girls in different age groups.
There was nothing out there just for girls and I thought, well do I just want to coach rugby or do I want to help with the development of young players using what I learned over my years around leadership and teamwork? Most of these girls aspire to play for England, so how can I give them a step up and help them learn as many skills as possible before going to an England camp.
It’s really hard work, but every time I run the camp there’s a moment where I look around and think, I love what I do.
Do you have any success stories that you can share?
Yes, we had a girl from a care home who was signed up to my camp. Two carers came along with her who thought they might have to step in because of her attitude. I thought, ‘I’m not sure I’m experienced enough to deal with this so I’m glad that you’re here’. But she was the best player, the best person throughout the whole camp.
I cannot tell you the transformation she had. She was bigger than all of the other girls, but she was so gentle in how she approached players and the way she helped and encouraged others. I got a three-page report back about how the platform of Rugby gave her an opportunity to really excel and she had found a place where she really belonged. Afterward all she talked about was the day and how much she wanted to come back. It’s things like that where you just know you’ve made a real difference to someone’s life. It’s moments like that when you think it’s just all so worth it.
How do you manage funding?
It’s all self-funded, players pay to attend, but I also have a sponsor and a bit of a business mentor from Cambridge Garage. They contacted me because Victoria, the MD, loved the idea, loves sport and really wanted to get involved. They’ve been a good support the whole way through.
Do you have any advice for girls considering rugby, or sport in general, as a career?
I always just say, ‘remember to allow yourself to be a beginner’. So many people jump into a new sport and think they’re no good. But why should you be able to do it, you’ve just picked up a rugby ball, and, like everything, it’s going to be difficult to start with. Allow yourself to be the person who is going to make mistakes. Embrace it and if you’re in a good environment you’re going to have people around you who can help you.
I think we do it in adulthood as well; you don’t want to be seen to not know all of the answers. Practice and practice and you will learn.
Where do you see women’s rugby in 10 years?
I would love to see the game be professional at club and international level and that’s probably going to be the right time for it to happen in terms of the product, infrastructure and competition. And not just England, I’d love to see that happen worldwide. Globally it is still amateur and there’s no point in one team or country steaming ahead because you’re not going to get the competition you need.
'More women need to be in those top positions. not becuase they're women, but becuase there are women out thre who are good enough to be in those roles'
Do you ever see a time when Rugby Union teams will be made up of simply the best players, regardless of whether they’re men or women?
No, men are just physically different, they’ve got testosterone flying around them and the physicality just isn’t the same. The one thing we can always compete with is skill and the technical and tactical element of games, but we’re never going to be as fast, powerful or strong — that’s just how it is.
That’s the whole reason why girls can’t play in the boys’ teams after 12. When puberty starts to hit, it’s just not safe. That’s got to be the number one priority.
What do you see as the next step in your career after you retire from the game?
I like doing a bit of punditry, but again it’s about creating opportunities. If we talk about where the game will be in 10 years, it would be great to see more opportunities available for women —not just punditry or writing. It would be good to see more women in decision-making roles at Chief Executive and operational levels. You don’t just want the game to get better; we need the whole infrastructure behind it to improve for things like that to be a viable option.
Rugby Australia has just appointed the first female CEO, Raelene Castle, which is fantastic. It’s starting to trickle through and while rugby is taking a huge lead on that, at a governance level, more women need to be in those top positions. Not just because they’re women, but because there are women out there good enough to be in those roles. We need to get the gender balance right.
But in terms of the Burford Academy there’s so much scope, so I’m just trying to narrow that and concentrate on the right elements for longevity. As a player, I don’t have any immediate plans to retire. We’re heading into a new World Cup cycle now and I think you’ve got to aim for that and see what happens in between.
2018 will be 100 years since the first women won the right to vote in the UK. How do you see gender equality 100 years on?
Wow, it’s been 100 years? I think we play a big part in equality. I don’t know if, maybe because I’ve been involved in some of these areas, I’ve been seeing it more, but I feel like women are really trying to take a stand for themselves and understand their own worth. The one thing I think we could always do better is supporting and empowering one another. If one person is flying, let’s fly with them, because it will take traction to change this entirely.
What does the word feminine mean to you?
It means strong, empowered, independent and maybe comfortable. Whatever feminine looks like to you, just being comfortable in that.
If you could nominate one woman who inspires you either inside or outside of your industry, who would that be?
Katie Sadleir, the new World Rugby General Manager (ex-Olympic synchronised swimmer). She doesn’t come from a rugby background, but her passion for women, is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
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