Here is another, somewhat belated, offering for that shortlist that never was at the end of last year – that of the outstanding achievers in British sport who also happen to be female.
Because England do boast a successful rugby team, after all, in the shape of their women’s side. On Sunday they take on Scotland in Edinburgh, and so begins their assault on a seventh consecutive Six Nations title, five of the last six having been grand slams. Indeed, the only thing that has stopped us proclaiming them as the best in the world over that time has been New Zealand, but even the Black Ferns were seen off in a three-Test series at the end of 2011. It means England’s women could stake a claim to being the best in the world.
It is another two years before they get a chance to clinch the argument proper at the 2014 World Cup, but for now they are intent on matching last year’s achievement in the Six Nations.
“It’s always about winning a grand slam,” says Katy McLean, England’s captain. “We were really lucky in 2011 that we were able to play a lot of rugby. Everything we did in 2011 and coming into 2012 is about raising that bar. We want to win a World Cup, and the next opportunity we have is in 2014. All of this is stepping stones for that.”
Women’s rugby at the highest level plays to a different beat, one that might have been recognisable to the men a few decades ago. It is an amateur pursuit, which the players fit in around their busy lives. Hence the gratitude for that simple privilege of being able “to play a lot of rugby”. In the men’s game, the phrase means playing with ambition; in the women’s it means playing.
Nevertheless, reflecting the rapidly growing popularity of the sport, England did play plenty in the last calendar year. The grand slam (223 points scored; eight conceded) was followed up by three wins out of three in last summer’s Nations Cup against Canada, South Africa and the USA. A young side was then sent out for a two-match tour of France (two defeats), before the three Tests against New Zealand.
The first was won 10-0 at Twickenham, in front of Sky Sports’ cameras, and the second 21-7 in Esher. The third was a draw. It marked new territory for England, finally overcoming their nemesis a year after the Black Ferns had beaten them 13-10 in the 2010 World Cup final. “They are the ones that keep getting in our way,” says McLean with a laugh.
“We learnt a lot from the New Zealand series. It’s a massive confidence thing for us. It shows they are beatable, and they are beatable regularly. Maybe in the final we were a little bit overawed by the occasion and just went in with our one option, and actually that one option didn’t work. This time we were better prepared, so when they did throw different things at us, we had different ways of managing that. We probably performed better on the day. In the final our performance was pretty dire.”
Yet it was enough to enthral a new audience, with the latter stages of the competition televised live. And in 2011 the Rugby Union Writers’ Club strode boldly where the BBC feared to tread by presenting Maggie Alphonsi, the inspirational openside, with the Pat Marshall Award, the first time a woman had been awarded rugby’s equivalent of personality of the year.
There will be three further opportunities to watch England in this year’s women’s championship without leaving the comfort of your own home. Sky are to broadcast England’s key clash against France at Stade Charléty on 11 March, the BBC will show the match against Wales at Twickenham after the men’s game, and the RFU website will stream live coverage of the Ireland game at Esher on 17 March.
Such levels of coverage alone show how far women’s rugby has come in recent years, and, in the case of England, results on the field are similarly impressive. These are exciting times, indeed.