Catherine Spencer Q&A: Mud, Maul, Mascara

Catherine Spencer's autobiography, Mud, Maul, Mascara, is on sale now
©Joe Harvey

At the book launch for her autobiography, Joe Harvey spoke to former England Women's captain Catherine Spencer about the book she wrote, England and the Tyrrells Premier 15s.

Joe Harvey: What becomes apparent when reading the book, is that there was a lot for you to unpack after finishing rugby, how therapeutic was it for you writing this book?

Catherine Spencer: A few people have asked that. It was quite therapeutic actually, I didn’t write it for that reason, but I found out as I was writing it that, that was a nice little bonus as it were.

Just putting my thoughts down on paper helped me to unload a little bit, take a bit of weight off and just getting it all down in a book, kind of, neatly packages it up for me, if that makes sense?

Maybe an hour with a counsellor might have been better, it wouldn’t have been so long and arduous, but it was really good. Good to write it on many levels.

JH: A women’s rugby book, or a women’s rugby autobiography, is not a common thing, so is it good to be seen as a bit of a pioneer in that respect?

CS: Yeah, you are right, it is very much a rarity. Non Evans, a Welsh player, wrote a book about ten years ago, that was a bit about rugby, her judo, her weightlifting, so that was a little bit different.

But, certainly the first ever book written by an English female, so it is nice. It is quite nice to be pioneering in that sense really, I really hope that it is a success and it helps encourage other females from the world of rugby to write books.

There are so many books out there by male rugby players and coaches and so on, so it would be nice to try and help to even that up a little bit. As the women’s game is growing and the profile is growing, there is no reason that we can’t see more books on the shelves.

JH: The women’s game is probably pretty unrecognisable, to when you first started down at Folkestone, how different is the game? Because it seems so much more accessible...

CS: It has completely transformed really. We have got a long way to go and there are aspects of the game that have not come that far, but it has completely transformed. When I started playing mini rugby it was a bit different, but when I was playing club rugby, it was still very much; “women don’t play rugby, what are you doing? That’s not right”.

There is still active opposition to it and just a complete lack of awareness that women do play rugby. When I was working for the RFU, someone came up to me and asked where their daughter could play rugby and when they told me which club they belonged to, I said; “there is a team at your club.”

They had no idea that there was a women’s team at the club that they were a member of, but now it is so much more visible, and it has just become accepted. Men play rugby, boys play rugby, women play rugby and girls play rugby as well.

It is much more accepted now. There still are people that are against it and that is okay, but generally there are so many more opportunities now for women and girls to play.

JH: As you’ve seen, Newcastle Falcons are trying to launch their own team to join the Tyrrells and when I was playing mini and juniors in the North-East, about 15 years ago, I only ever remember playing with or against one girl.

That’s not even that long ago, so in terms of where the women’s game has gone, with visibility and accessibility, it has massively transformed...

CS: It has, there are still clubs that you can go to and you can count the number of girls that are playing in mini’s setups on one hand, but then you can go to another club and they have got a huge amount of girls playing.

It is very driven by, a bit like the boys and men’s game, individuals who are willing to give their time to really promote girls and women’s sections, so it is very much dependent on very active volunteers, but a lot of rugby is. That’s not exclusive to the women’s and girl’s game.

The last few years, I think it really has grown and that is part of a wider focus of the growth of women’s sport in general and this wider shift in culture, that women can play contact sports, women can go to the gym and lift weights, all this kind of stuff and there is a real movement towards that; it is okay to be strong and to be female.

JH: I drew parallels between one of the sections in your book, which was talking about watching England women winning the World Cup in 2014 to something that Brian Moore wrote in one of his autobiographies.

He was talking about being at a friend’s house party in 2003, watching that World Cup final, his friends tell him that he is crying and there was an assumption that it was because he was so happy that England had won, but in reality it was the torment of 1991 and not winning that final...

CS: Yeah, it is very, very similar. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write it really. So that actually, it is okay, it is normal to feel like that, it is human nature. I think a lot of people think like that, but are afraid to say anything, or afraid to admit to it in a way, so I am hoping that the book helps people understand that it is normal to feel that way.

JH: Because, ultimately, you are competitors and in both of your cases you were essentially amateurs at the time and that is still kind of the case with the women’s game now. Kate Alder, our Women’s Rugby columnist, and her most recent column was talking about the mixture of some professional players and then a majority of players that are not...

CS: It is still really hard because, we have these top, top players, 28 of whom are getting paid, which is a small percentage and Kate is right. There is this expectation on those involved in the Premiership, some of them are given really extensive S&C programmes and the expectation of their training has increased.

The majority of them are still going to work, full-time, so I think it is a really difficult time. Whatever happens to the sport, if we get to the stage where clubs are all fully professional in five, ten years’ time, they really need to turn around and thank these players that are playing now in the Premiership, raising standards on the pitch and are still going to work on the Monday morning.

JH: Is that why it is so important for the RFU to do all their spot-checking and reapplying to be in the league, just to make sure that the teams are still viable in ten years’ time?

CS: Definitely, I think there needs to be. It is not just about now, it is about ten years’ time and the performances on the pitch need to rise, so that they can get that support off the pitch as well. We all want the women’s game to grow, we want there to be opportunities for younger girls to pick up the ball and say; “I can do that”, that’s what we’re all aiming for.

Wherever we are coming from, we are all generally on the same page. We want the women’s game to improve and part of that is attracting good sponsorship and all of those kind of partnerships. We need a really good product for that and Harlequins are showing that, actually, with a link to a club with those resources, a club that is willing and happy to put that into the women’s game, what and effect that can have, what a difference that can make.

JH: And we’ll now move onto the professionals, England doing pretty well in the Six Nations, those contracts really are the difference right now and England are going to reap the rewards, aren’t they?

I was out in France, I was commentating on the France game and yes, England won, they played well and are a really good team. France had so many opportunities and made so many errors, some forced, England’s defence is good, it was fairly close to being a different story and France could have come away with that victory.

Winning in France is not an easy thing, with the home support and everything, England came through that and really, in all likelihood, they will go on to win the tournament now and as you say, they should do. They are the only full-time team now, France have got part-time support and are a world away from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.

It is a bit of an interesting time at the moment for the Six Nations. England are leading the way again on and off the pitch, but it is what is going to happen to the rest of the teams. How can we be sure that the game as a whole increases and improves on and off the pitch?

JH: It is funny, there are players from four of the other five nations that have come over to England to get that level of competition, so is that another really good thing about the Tyrrells, that it is attracting a lot of international attention?

CS: Yeah, there are 13 players in the Scotland team that play in the Tyrrells Premiership and it is a bit of a double-edged sword really. It is providing really good levels of competition for players to go back to their country, it is only going to help them, but what is that doing to domestic rugby in Scotland?

We have players from New Zealand, globally the Tyrrells Premiership is seen as being at the forefront of women’s domestic rugby. But there are changes, France were top eight (in the world), they were top 16 and I think that is going to help develop, the top end of that is vastly better than the bottom end and we see that in the Tyrrells, there is quite a difference between the top and bottom halves of the table, but we will get there.

We want to go into every game, and Giselle Mathers says this as well, we want to go into every game not knowing who is going to win and we are pretty much there in the men’s Premiership, but we are far from that in the Tyrrells.

JH: What do you think is the next step for women’s rugby? Does the professionalism become more widespread, or is it just carrying on as things are and gradually ramp things up?

CS: I think we are on the right path with what is happening with clubs. The likes of Newcastle, Exeter are also trying to get involved and they are realising the benefits of having women’s rugby at their clubs. They are not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, they are seeing it as a business opportunity as well and that is what we need.

We need to look at the teams below that as well, we have the same conversation in men’s rugby as well, you don’t want a massive gulf to open up between the Premiership and the Championship. We need to by trying and improving things across the board.

That being said, we have got the top clubs providing a lot of the role models to young players and that will trickle down, but what we don’t want is the dearth of talent to just go into the Premiership when they have got second teams as well.

I kind of wonder if we can, in my personal opinion, I wonder if we don’t actually have second teams, so that we can direct some of that talent down to the Championship and help to develop more talent that way.

A review of Mud, Maul, Mascara will follow in the coming days.