Rochelle Clark hopes to make her 114th England appearance when they play France at The Stoop on Wednesday. Photograph: Tom Shaw/Canterbury
Being compared with Jason Leonard is not necessarily every young girl’s dream. For Rochelle Clark, though, there is no bigger honour than to draw up alongside the legendary old prop as the most capped England rugby player, male or female, of all time. “It’s great to have my name associated with the ‘Fun Bus’,” acknowledges the 35-year-old Clark before her record-equalling 114th cap against France on Wednesday.
A few minutes with “Rocky” is an education. This is a woman who turned up 24kg lighter for her third cap than for her second – just think about that for a second – and has now played Test rugby for 14 years with no sign of calling it a day. Precious few female athletes in their mid-30s would even contemplate turning professional, as Clark is finally doing this season.
In a perfect world she would continue playing loosehead prop for England until she is close to 40, win another World Cup and then go on to coach in the men’s game at a high level. Behind her glasses at the Hog’s Back hotel near Farnham on Monday, the competitive glint in her eye is still unmissable: “They’ll have to take me away kicking and screaming probably. I’m still as hungry and passionate as I was 13 years ago. It’s still burning strong. I eat, sleep and breathe rugby.”
The brilliance of Clark, in short, is two-fold. She is a role model for every teenage girl who has ever stood on a touchline and thought about giving the sport a go. In Clark’s case a local team in Beaconsfield were short of players and she found herself, aged 15, participating in a totally alien game. “I didn’t even know women’s rugby existed. I absolutely loved it and never looked back.”
Perhaps more significantly, though, she is an ongoing inspiration to all in terms of self-discipline and commitment, having run on to the field for her first couple of caps in 2003 weighing 109kg, as opposed to her current 85kg. “I’d just sort of bumbled around before. I’d be eating a Caesar salad and thinking: ‘It’s salad, it’s healthy,’ but forgetting about the fried croutons, the sauce and the bacon.”
Sausages and mash were her absolute favourite. “I used to love having four sausages and a massive mound of mash. I just liked volume then.”
Ah, the good old days. It makes the remodelled Clark the perfect individual to reflect on the cultural revolution currently sweeping through women’s rugby. For the first time 29 professional contracts have been awarded to England’s 15-a-side women’s players, following the example of sevens. It is a game-changer that should have a significant trickle-down effect on the women’s club game, both in terms of standards and interest.
Anyone who saw the Australian women’s sevens team’s exhilarating slaughter of New Zealand in the Olympic final in Rio will already be aware of the spectacular ability of the world’s top female fliers. But therein lies the conundrum facing all involved: sevens is a perfect promotional vehicle for women’s rugby, possibly to the long-term detriment of the 15-a-side game.
The Rugby Football Union opted to try and fudge the issue temporarily by sending its most experienced 15-a-side backs away to the sevens circuit. Sadly, when it came to it in Rio, the GB squad located few rainbows never mind pots of gold medals. Too many looked what they were: players not entirely suited to the shorter format. In their absence the England 15-a-side team regressed without their senior figures, prompting widespread muttering all round.
Hence this autumn’s much-trumpeted new era, with the national side rebranded as the ‘Red Roses’ and Emily Scarratt, Katy McLean and Danielle Waterman back in the fold before the 2017 World Cup in Dublin and Belfast next August. Clark, for whom sevens was never a realistic option, could hardly be more thrilled. “I’m really happy I was part of the amateur era but so thankful I’m part of the professional bit now. Having to have a professional attitude has probably elongated my career. You can’t hide or just flop on to rucks. If you look at old team photos there were a few round edges back in 2003. Compared with 2016 you struggle to recognise which one is me.”
In 10 to 15 years the chances are people will look back and be similarly taken aback. Clark, for one, reckons the women’s game is heading for a whole new level. “The game has already grown massively since I first started. You get so many players coming along now who have seen women’s rugby and are really inspired. For me the World Cup is bigger than the Olympics but that might be different for younger players coming through. The game is going to split and you will have sevens specialists, as the men do. I assume club rugby will eventually go professional as well. We’re probably 15 years behind the guys but I think we’re going to rise quite steeply.”
Extending her own playing career as a fully fledged professional will temporarily put a brake on Clark’s coaching ambitions with the mens’ team at Chesham Stags and Bucks New University in High Wycombe; she has also been driving from Buckinghamshire to Worcester two or three times a week to train and play club rugby. She has a degree in sports science, an MBE for services to rugby and is hoping to pass her level four coaching qualification; if and when she overhauls Leonard and the Scottish women’s world record-holder Donna Kennedy, who won 115 caps, it will be due reward for her remarkable perseverance. As Leonard rightly puts it: “She’s an inspiration to everyone in rugby, not just women and girls coming through.”
A penny for her thoughts, then, if she comes on as a replacement against France. “I’ll be reminded of running out for my 100th cap at Twickenham. That was so special. They put the lights on me, I ran out first and everyone in the crowd had these ‘Rocky’ masks which was pretty cool. But I’ll also be thinking of team-mates who have helped me get to where I have … unsung heroes like Amy Garnett, Sophie Hemming, Ness Gray and our former coach Graham Smith. I just want to do the jersey proud.” And when Leonard buys her a drink afterwards, what’s her order? “It won’t be that exciting. Probably just a pint of lager. I’m a pretty simple girl.”
Born in the USA
The knock-on effects of Ireland’s outstanding win over New Zealand in Chicago will be fascinating. If Ireland were to complete a double over the All Blacks in Dublin on Saturday week, for example, selection for next year’s British and Irish Lions tour will assume a very different hue. CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong, Jack McGrath, Joey Carbery … on this evidence there could be plenty more Irish Lions to accompany certainties like Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. Wales, in contrast, will need to bounce back swiftly against Argentina to disprove the theory they are a team who have suddenly hit a brick wall. Scotland and England, similarly, now have no excuse for kicking off their autumn campaigns sluggishly. Ireland have done the whole of world rugby a good turn.
And another thing …
The ejection of Andy Robinson from his director of rugby role at Bristol follows hard on the heels of Alex King’s departure as Northampton’s backs coach. There is increasingly little patience – or mercy – shown when Premiership sides fail to deliver, as Mike Ford also discovered at Bath last season. There is another recurring trend – if in doubt, go and recruit from the southern hemisphere. When was the last time a Premiership club appointed a young, innovative English coach to head up its operations rather than look abroad? With Dean Ryan no longer at Worcester, the only English-qualified head honchos now left in the Premiership are John Kingston, Steve Diamond, Dean Richards, Rob Baxter, Richard Cockerill and Jim Mallinder. None of them are under the age of 45. The top three sides in the league are guided by an Ulsterman, a Welshman and a Kiwi. If Bristol simply look to South Africa for their next coach that is absolutely their prerogative but it will be a further blow to the increasingly battered esteem of English-reared coaching.