A trip into London in the Summer gave me the opportunity to learn about the Rugby4All Premiership Rugby programme, it also gave me the chance to meet Rachael Burford the World Cup winning England rugby player.  We had a short chat and exchanged details after Rachael agreed to meet for an interview.

It took some time to arrange to meet, but I made my way to the Surrey Sports Park one Friday afternoon in January.  The Sports Park is a hugely impressive facility; Rachael had a weights session with the rest of the England squad, I had tea and cake while she completed her workout.

I knew Rachael would be a whirlwind on the basis of our earlier meeting I wasn’t totally ready for her story.

My first question is always where did you first play rugby?  And I saw no reason not to ask the same question of Rachael, she started at 6 years old  and played at Medway Rugby Club where she stayed for 10 years. The next part of the answer did surprise me I must confess, her Dad, Mum and sister played.

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Rachael, Ren and Louise

Even more of a surprise when Rachael explained that her Mum, Ren, is Polish, her Dad was playing and set up a club in Poland.  Her Mum and Dad met and he brought her back here,  she played from her late 20’s. Having come from a country where she hadn’t known rugby at all!  They had Rachael’s sister Louise, with little sister coming along later.

All 3 played together;  with one classic press release recounting how Burford passed to Burford to Burford.

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Rachael at the Rugby4All Launch

Rachael found herself training with women from the age of 12, she was a ball carrier that turned into a decision maker and distributor.  Rachael played 10 or 12 and even Full Back at a regional level, until she nailed down the 12 spot at the age of 16.

Mum Ren and sister Louise meant business rugby wise, Ren played at County Level as a Flanker, Hooker or scrum half,  Louise played Flanker, Fullback or Centre at England student level.

From the age of  13 Rachael was involved at County and Regional level and was invited to the England Development Camp at Loughborough over the Summer; at the age of 16 she started to play senior rugby  And was playing representative rugby for the Under 19’s at 16.

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Rachael at the Hitz Rugby Awards evening

In an interesting move Rachael moved to Bath to a Rugby Academy, working with Gary Street.  She lived with a family, the first few months was very hard  as things didn’t work with the first host family, a tough gig to be far from home at 16.  Oldfield Academy had a 6th form set up offering A Levels.  Rugby and Fitness were fitted in after school; a really great idea, yet perhaps ahead of its time it folded after a year.

Rachael was in good company at the Academy with Danielle Waterman, Claire Allan and Heather Fisher involved too.  With only a year in the Academy studying, Rachael came out with no qualifications. We expanded on that time, Rachael was very thoughtful as she feels strongly that she’s not sure where she’d be now without rugby in her life.

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Rachael at the Women’s Premiership Final

Rachael was advised to go to a Premiership Club and went to Henley, they paid petrol money to help with what was a significant journey for her Mum and Dad. This was now 2004/5  and she was there for 2 seasons.  In the run up to the 2006 World Cup there was no club rugby, instead there was a regional type tournament – Super League, with the Final being played at Twickenham, Rachael was the ripe old age of 18.

A call up to the senior England team came when Rachael was 18, she went to the World Cup and became the youngest player to go at Just 19. There were 2 uncapped players on the trip – that was unheard of! Rachael was joined by Prop,  Katie Storey.  With no pressure on her she didn’t remember being daunted and loved the whole experience of a World Cup in Canada!

Rachael had headed back to college and while there she moved to Saracens, a successful team she was there for 3 seasons, they won the Premiership 3 times on the bounce!  Lots of her fellow Saracens had been to the World Cup – she partnered up with Claire Allan in the Centres and of course Maggie Alphonsi was an ever present!

Bearing in mind we’re talking rugby players who were representing their country these women were paying subs and buying their own kit!  There was a minimal amount of funding, but certainly not enough to live on, Rachael worked in a gym at the same time in order to be able to live.

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A Family Affair

During this time  in 2007 the family suffered a sad loss, as Michael, her Dad passed away – Rachael was only 20 years old.   The England team wore armbands to honour Michael in the Six Nations in 2007.   Rugby got her through that time, and she managed to start every Six Nations game, her Dad would have been a proud man.

I will let you know at this point that one article isn’t going to be enough to tell you all about this young lady, it’s going to take several more, and will hopefully include an interview with her Mum too!  So here I’ll touch on the fact that Rachael is involved in 7’s rugby for England alongside 15’s rugby.  (more to come another time on that).

A big factor may have been that The RFU and WRFU sat separately, they joined forces around 2010 just before the World Cup.  Gary Street who’d remained a force in Rachael’s life would travel to Kent and do a session with her adding in training camps throughout the year.  At this time there were more competitions than there had been prior 2009, there had been summer tours, and the Six Nations, Autumn Internationals were added in.

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Danielle Waterman, Rachael and Helen Clayton (Robbie ??) at the Hitz Awards

Away from the rugby Rachael completed her 2 years at college and as mentioned worked as a fitness instructor, unsurprisingly that bored her after a while and she went into sales for a while.  Add in coaching in schools, with multi skills sports coaching – and being a Nanny in North London and it’s quite clear this is one resourceful young lady!

In 2010 Rachael moved to Richmond, another Premiership side and big rivals with Saracens, with another World Cup on the horizon she’d decided she needed to have a life near where the training for England would be, she was joined by Amy Turner, Alice Richardson and of course Claire Allan – they were building some England back line Centre pairing!

Now living in Twickenham Rachael picked up a Nanny job again, it was good pay and suited her lifestyle, she also picked up some personal training in central London , managing to fit a few hours in the gym in.   Life wasn’t settled she had several jobs with no regular cash flow, it was at times a bit hand to mouth.  So at this point I’m going to add the word determined to the resourceful!

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Next up the 2010 World Cup – it happened in England and England came 2nd.  A Job opportunity came up in Kent, working in the community coaching rugby, with a September start date, this would give security and a steady income.  With that in mind Rachael gave up her bits and bobs of work from May, the England players were supported financially to a degree.  She was living life as a rugby player, it was successful World Cup, but as it ended Rachael had to go back to earning a living.  She lived with her Mum,  started the job and did some ad hoc work on top.  It was an odd time – she and the team had played in a World Cup Final at the Stoop, and in spite of good coverage on Sky Sports and a lot of media input many still didn’t know who they were.  The game had however come on in leaps and bounds!

This job was the closest Rachael had got full time, she worked in schools, colleges, universities and clubs; it was a frustrating time as she struggled to see success or achievement.  She’d be in an environment for 6 weeks before moving on.  The coaching was specifically for women/girls, they loved the getting muddy and full contact, always asking – Can we do contact?

Rachael spent 3 years in that job taking a sabbatical in 2013, in the November in preparation for the 2014 World Cup she lived the life of a full time player, the team were given some money for 8 months, she supplemented that with public speaking appearances, her Mum was a massive support.  Danielle Waterman followed suit, taking the leap at the same time as Rachael, but was based in Gloucester, making joint training a difficult possibility.

We spoke a little more about Rachael’s relationship rugby wise with her Mum – she once ran on the pitch once when her Mum was playing she ran in and pushed players off her Mum as she was at the bottom of a ruck!  And received her only Red card when the 2 of them were playing; Mum was being held round the neck, she ran from the other side of the pitch and pushed the ‘attacker’ away.

The rest as far as the World Cup is history to a degree, but some detail.  The position for the Women’s team and professionalism was dealt with before the tournament in spite of the announcement coming after.

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Family memories made at the World Cup Final

On August 17th 2014  England Women won the World Cup!   I asked Rachael what it had felt like.    The team were  in the circle struggling not to cry, wanting to laugh, they were so happy and relieved, there was a feeling that whoever they’d played they would have won.  The whole team had come together and were really confident going into that final.

For Rachael the elation was unbelievable, her 2 half sisters came along, with one, Mel and Rachael’s nephew Dom taking a 24 hour bus ride to Paris the other Michelle driving from Luxembourg.  The team drove to the stadium and  she saw them all there.  It was great that they were there along with her Mum and sister, although Rachael very much missed the presence of her Dad.

The result of that Final in Paris was England 21 Canada 9 – We had World Cup Winners!

This seems a good place to stop this instalment – believe me there is a whole lot more to come!

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