CASTRES, FRANCE – It isn’t every day you get to speak to a rugby World Cup winner, and I can honestly say my heart was racing as I punched the phone number on the pad in front of me. Fortunately, the voice on the other end of the line was warm and friendly.
Prop Rochelle Clark – better known as Rocky to her teammates and friends – was a key member of the England team that beat Canada to lift the World Cup in Paris last summer. It was an epic, watershed moment for the women’s game, but it was far from an easy victory. So there was nowhere else to begin but by asking about the competition that changed everything.
After losing the previous two World Cup finals, Clark knew the pressure was on. “I would have put everything on us winning in 2010, especially in our own country,” she said. “We’d been smashing it – we beat New Zealand in 2009 and everything was on board to win, so when we lost that one I was like: ‘Okay… I know we can win in 2014, but we have to play our best.’”
England’s opening games went smoothly enough, but the pool match against Canada was far from their best performance, as Clark remembered: “We dogged it out, but the team didn’t play particularly well. We came out with a draw, which we found out was enough to get into the semis.”
That meant facing Ireland, and Clark knew England had to step up. “They’d had a big chat about how we were the best opposition they could face, and they were so passionate to beat us,” she said. “We were wounded animals that came out. To be honest, in my 95 caps, that is the best performance that England have ever put in.
“We played against a really good defence and a very good attack, but just something clicked that day. That was my most enjoyable game, I think, because our scrum had been under pressure in the Canada game, and then we turned over quite a few of the Irish scrums and we knew that we were on track.”
“I scored the first try in the Ireland game – which was amazing – and that kind of lifted people. And then the tries kept on coming. It was a really great performance and then, obviously, four or five days later we were in the final against Canada.”
That nerve-jangling match will go down in history as one of the England’s most memorable, and for Clark it was a crowning glory. “I’ve been playing rugby since 2003, so it’s a lifetime’s dream and ambition achieved.
“I don’t think it could get any sweeter than that. It was absolutely amazing to achieve it. After all the heartache – I’ve been through two horrendous finals, losing by three points in 2010 was heart-wrenching – to finally do the World Cup and be on top was amazing!”
The World Cup trophy was just the start of the accolades: England’s women were named Team of the Year at the annual BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony, while Clark was made an MBE in the 2015 Honours list.
When asked just how good 2014 was, Clark said: “Best year of my life. I don’t think any year will compete with this, because it just kept getting better and better.”
There’s still plenty of work to be done for the seasoned prop, not least preparing for what should be a mouthwatering 2015 Six Nations. I asked if there was a particular team she was looking forward to facing, and if there was a squad she would rather be anywhere than on a pitch with.
Clarke laughed and answered: “I want to play everybody. I would play an international every week if I could! I love, I LOVE pulling on the white shirt and facing whoever. I really like hard games, especially when they’re a good forward team as well. I like that, the one-on-one grudge match, trying to smash the opposite number when they carry. I’ve got that real forward mentality.”
She went on: “I’m really, really excited about playing Ireland and France, they’re going to be our toughest opponents, but that’s not to underestimate Wales, Scotland and Italy. Everybody seems to play their best game against England. I know there will be people trying to go for the scalp of the world champions, so it’s going to be even more physical this year.”
So, how did she get to this amazing place: England’s second-most capped player, who could break 100 during the Six Nations, selection and injury permitting? What were Clark’s rugby beginnings?
“I started when I was 15,” she said. “A friend at school was playing for a local U-18s team, and she was really short of players. I was like ‘oh nooo, rugby’s not for me, I’ll get injured!’.”
Clarke laughed and added: “She said ‘just come along and try it’. So I went along and I absolutely loved it! I was in there tackling people, doing scrummaging and I never looked back – 18 years on I’m still enjoying it and probably in the best form of my life at the moment.”
As for the notion of hanging up her boots, forget it. “There’s no hint of me retiring,” Clark said matter-of-factly. “The carrot has been dangled that the next World Cup’s only in three years, they’ve changed it, so I’m like: ‘well I’m in pretty good shape’, and I’m enjoying it so I’m going to carry on and see where I am after the end of the year.
“I would want to play as long as I can, and I think I’m good enough, so it just depends on the coaches’ opinions really!”
Clark, who also coaches rugby, is happy to pass on advice to young girls looking to get into the game, saying: “I would say go along, try it, you’ll make friends for life. It keeps you fit and healthy and teaches you the values of life: teamwork, leadership and looking after each other – really good values that you can apply to other parts of your life, but the main thing is fun and enjoyment and keeping fit.”
One issue that continually comes up is safety, but when I asked Clark whether she thought the sport was as safe for young girls – especially as they entered puberty – as boys, she was unequivocal in her response.
“Definitely. I don’t think there are any issues of whether you’re male or female. There are injuries in every sport but something that keeps you healthy and fit in the long run and in later life, I think isn’t a bad thing at all. I definitely wouldn’t say there’s any difference between girls and boys getting injured.”
“You can get injured falling off a kerb – it’s daily life. There are ways of protecting yourself, but I think as long as you’ve had the technical training of how to tackle, run, land, like in any sport, you’ll get the odd niggle, but certainly I wouldn’t say it was worse than any other sport.”
As someone who thoroughly enjoys the harder games, she laughed off my suggestion that rugby was a game of evasion, and said: “I kind of beeline for people! But most players try to avoid other people, so I would say yes, that’s probably how the game should be played.”
“But there’s a few of us who are a bit cannon-ball like – we like running into people! I’m certainly one of those. I’m not about to change but at least I’ll get you quick ball and take a few people out!”
The conversation finally turns to what Clark hopes for the future, as the women’s game enjoys an explosion in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.
“I’d like to see a big increase in players,” she said. “We’re moving along that way, but in all forms: whether it be touch, tag, Sevens or 15s. I think Sevens is great way for those who are not quite sure, especially just to follow – it’s a very good spectator sport. There are lots of tries scored, they’re short games in a tournament format.”
“I’d like the 15s in England to go professional and being a part of it myself would be nice! One day that will happen. Sadly, it might be when I’m not around, but I think to play at the top of your sport you have to throw everything into it. Obviously it is a bit of a struggle to train twice a day and fit in full-time work. It’s hard, but I do it for the love of the sport, I would never not do that. Then more games on TV would be great and maybe some premiership games on telly – getting the media coverage.”
Does Clark think things are finally heading in the right direction? “I do think it’s massively changing. Winning the World Cup was a huge thing but I think it started probably from 2010, where we had a lot of coverage in that World Cup. We had increased participation and it’s just built from there.”
As for Clark herself, what does she look forward to? “I’m on 95 caps now,” she said. “Potentially the end of Six Nations, the last game at Twickenham versus France could be my 100th – we’ll wait on injury and selection. My focus is get selected for the Six Nations and play hard.”
“Our 15 squad has got quite a few new people, there’s a lot of inexperience, so it’s really important the likes of myself, Tamara Taylor and Laura Keates really use our experience to help the youngsters come up.”
“We were in this place two years ago, when we had the likes of Ceri Large and Amber Reed who were the youngsters in the squad and were starting. They’ve now got a lot of experience now too, three years on. I think we’re in a better place, but it’s going to be tough – make no bones about it.”
“It’s doable, we’ve just got to play well, blood these youngsters and get them up to speed.”
Images courtesy of RFU.
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