|I have been playing Rugby now for three seasons – I started in my last year at University for Chichester University and went for the England Student trials which got the ball rolling. In the Summer of 2001, I attended the regional Performance Development Camps that are held for all levels of abilities but lead towards a tournament called Super 4's.
At the performance camps I met a number of the Wasps Ladies team and joined Wasps for the beginning of the 2001/2002 Season.
I was successful in the performance camp and was selected to attend the Super 4's trials games. They select 88 players from the different camps across the country – these players are then put into 4 squads. The aim of the tournament is to not only test and watch you play, but also to find out how well you work in such a team environment. From this, they will select the top 44 players who will eventually make up the main England Squad and the A's (2nd team). They will also pick an Academy side, which is for players to develop and hopefully move up to the main two squads.
In my first season at Wasps, I was selected for the Academy side, then following another season and another Super 4 competition I moved up to the A's Squad. This brings us to this season 2002/2003, both the Senior 22 and the A's trailed for the tour to Canada to represent England in the Churchill Cup and for the Development Tour to South Africa.
I was then selected for the South Africa Development Tour. The age range of players was from 16 through to 32 years of age, with varying experiences and areas of development required. It was a great mix of players.
We had several training camps at Loughborough, Lillishall before we left. This enabled the squad to get to know one another and to start to build a squad atmosphere and to meet the staff that would be with us for three weeks. This included two Coaches – Gary Street and Richard Woods, a Manager – Sharon Young, Doctor – Stephen Lewis, Physio – Jill Chapman and Fitness Trainer – Richmond Stace. We would also be accompanied by the Performance Director – Carol Isherwood (OBE) and Start and Potential Manager – Nicola Ponsford (MBE).
We set off for South Africa on the 26th May 2003, heading for the unknown as it was the first time that a female squad had been to South Africa.
My position is prop – either tighthead or loose. They are trying to encourage props to be able to play either side and with three weeks away of intense training and technical work, the other three props were all looking forward to learning the new skills.
Due to the age range, there were a number of different characters and individuals but we were always serious on "the green bit" as our Coach liked to call training. They allowed us to have fun and enjoy the experience but expected us to maintain a professional approach to training and match days it was referred to as the "mini P".
Even though we are not "professional" (although some of us are lucky enough to receive Lottery Funding), the way we conduct ourselves whilst on tour has to always be at the highest standard as we are representing our country and are ambassadors for our sport.
Our tour started in Pretoria which is an hour outside of Johannesburg. At the end of the first week we were going to be playing the Blue Bulls at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium, 31st May. We had to train twice a day and would have meetings in the evening or treatments if necessary. The day before the game, we would have a team run-through and would be presented with our match shirts.
The South African sides that we were going to be playing were provisional sides – we knew little about them. We won the first game 37-8 but we were impressed by their physical presence and it gave us some indication of the future matches.
All our games and training sessions were recorded, so in team debriefs the coaches could analyse our individual and squad performance and the following week, before the next game, we could focus on areas that needed improving. This was a very valuable resource and was a great tool to help us highlight areas and focus to improve on them.
We then moved from Pretoria to Natal Spa and had a rest day and we visited Rorke's Drift and learned about the British and Zulu conflict. From there we went to Umhlanga which is 30 minutes from Durban and is on the coast, so we had the beach to go to if we had free time available. This was Week 2 and start of the build-up to the game against the Natal Sharks.
Most of the transfer to the new hotel could be anything up to 4 hours on the coach, but luckily we had a video on board the bus!
We played the Natal Sharks at Natal University on Friday 6th June, a different line-up was used against the Natal Sharks and worked with devastating effect, we won 95-0. They were not as strong as the Blue Bulls and some of the players came to train with us on the Sunday.
We also watched Scotland v South Africa at Kings Park on the Saturday, Scotland lost.
From there we went to the Dumuzulu Lodge where we had a rest day, but it was used for a dawn and dusk Safari! We saw lions, rhino, zebra, giraffes, elephants and monkeys.
On the 11th June we left Dumuzulu for our final destination and the build-up to the big game. Five hours later we were in Pongola and stayed at the Pongola Country Lodge. We had training throughout the week and on the 13th, the day before the game, we went to the ground to do our final team run. We arrived and the Stadium was still being painted! It was a big town event and the Zulu King had been invited to attend the game.
It was a brilliant day – we were surprised as the South African side did not play in the Springbok colours, but in blue and white. We played well and won the game 45-0. It was again another physical game but our fitness and squad spirit proved to be stronger than the South Africans'.
The sides we played were surprised by our physical aggression but with a few more years of development, the South African sides will be a force to be wary of.
We all learned a lot from our experiences, personally and as a collective. The South Africans are very friendly and are brilliant hosts – we were warmly welcomed at every destination.
Claire PurdyEngland Women's Team and Zurich employee