Reporter takes on the Woodbridge Amazons
APPREHENSION was the best emotion to sum up my state of mind as I prepared for a two-hour training sessions with the Woodbridge Amazons on a chilly night last Wednesday.
Apprehensive was the best emotion to sum up my state of mind as I prepared for a two-hour training sessions with the Woodbridge Amazons on a chilly night last Wednesday.
At the height of the men’s Rugby World Cup and with female rugby fast becoming one of the biggest-growing participation sports in the world, it seemed like the perfect time to muck in with the team that won promotion to RFUW Championship South East 2 last season.
As the ‘new boy’ to the sports team at the Evening Star and with my remit clearly focused on a plethora of sports in the town and surrounding areas, I was the perfect candidate to join the girls.
But surely nothing good could come of it. After all, a male reporter going to report on a female contact sport could be seen as being patronising and condescending. The girls were going to be unforgiving weren’t they? I had my gumshield ready.
Secondly, having made the move from Lincoln to Ipswich and with much of my early time in Suffolk spent unpacking, changing address details and getting lost, my fitness regime, if I ever had one, had fell by the wayside.
Add to that the fact that I am currently having acupuncture for a back complaint and have never played Rugby Union, all of a sudden the immediate future was looking as grim as England’s World Cup campaign. I had the Deep Freeze ready by the bucketload!
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The first person I came into contact with was Woody, a male coach and Hadleigh player who helps head coach and all-time Wales record caps holder Louise Rickard manufacture the girls in to the well-oiled machine they are.
Standing at around six-foot three and with a look of wrestler, Stone Cold Steve Austin, he acknowledged me with a menacing smile before proclaiming, ‘You’re going to have fun tonight’, as members of the Woodbridge junior team were beasted into doing what looked like hundreds of press-ups.
We started with a gentle run around the field before returning to a huddle where Rickard addressed her troops for the first time with an air of authority that only the record cap holder in Welsh rugby could command. Everyone listened and took in every word.
After saying her bit, maybe this would have been a good point to have said mine, such were some of the looks directed towards a tall imposter with a beard that had randomly started chasing them round a field but, before you could say Benny Hill, I was thrown in at the deep end.
Passing was the first discipline of the night and involved a staggered line of four running towards the try line, throwing the ball to each other, with the aim being for the ball to reach the try scorer at the end of the line.
I was given the unenviable task of being one of the middle two in this line. This meant that while the end two people changed position as the ball reached the end each the line, the two sandwiched in between had to turn sharply and carry on in the next drill.
If the cobwebs had not been blown off before they certainly had now and while I was concentrating on my stamina, there was also the small matter of collecting the ball cleanly on the run and then distributing it at a good height to the player on my left.
I got the hang of it although I was catching the ball far too close to my chest which jeopardises your momentum as you head towards the opposition defence.
A bucket of sweat later and having just got the hang of attacking as a team, I was swept off to learn all about arguably the most exciting part of the game - tackling.
In my way would be skipper EJ Stearn, a tree surgeon by day who, according to one team-mate, returned to training after an 18-month injury absence two weeks ago and was beaming like a Cheshire Cat after taking out her first victim in a tackling drill.
I had to run forward once she had got a grip of me but it was incredibly difficult to stay on my feet as, with ball in hand, your arms are no longer any good for balance.
Crash! I was taken to the ground like the last large birch being felled in a forest, hitting the hard ground with a thump.
While this exercise was being used to teach me the basics, it was also a great opportunity for our photographer to practice her long lens camera and flash technique. And while she was having an excellent time shooting, re-shooting and experimenting, I was suddenly beginning to question my sanity wishing I had worn a few more layers underneath my training top.
Tackling came to an end and we both just about ended in one piece. Next up was my role as a human crash barrier as the girls practised their attacking phases.
I didn’t know what I expected a female rugby player to look like before I got to training but having been told and then seeing for myself that they were one of the smaller teams in the league, I envisaged an relatively easy time.
I was wrong. From the slightest to the biggest, they crashed into a foam pad – the only protection between them and my midriff – with frightening speed and power.
One girl ran with the ball and on contact with the pad, off-loaded to her chasing pack who then piled in to me with the aim of pushing me back and gaining valuable metres.
I was particularly concerned by the prospect of being hit by the girl with a black eye and a lump the size of a tennis ball on her head!
I managed to stay on my feet, even with only a pair of flimsy trainers on and after 15 minutes acting like a matador in a bull ring, I sat out the next session as the girls worked on specific game play ahead of their clash with Harlequins on October 30.
But that was not the end of it. I was invited into a final game of touch rugby which really opened the lungs and I was pleased with my contribution, especially from an attacking point of view, having taken in what I had learned from the night’s opening drill.
It was only a five-minute game but the intensity and speed at which it was played after a two-hour session justified the girls’ standing as a force to be reckoned with in the ever-growing sport that is women’s rugby.
It was a demanding two hours of my life, but it was enjoyable.