Catherine Spencer was kind enough to give up part of an evening to chat about her career and her thoughts on England Women’s Rugby past and present.
Her early immersion in the game was at Folkestone, her home town. The lack of girls’ teams in eastern Kent in the 1980s meant she had to renounce the game when mixed rugby was no longer possible. By the age of 14 she was playing alongside seniors. Her promise was obvious, but it was another decade before she won the first of her 63 caps.
In the meantime, coaches were advising her to seek out a premiership club to advance her game. She joined Richmond for a short period, but felt drawn back irresistibly to Folkestone. This in no way halted her rise towards the top, but presents us with an unusual career-path in the game.
She studied philosophy and sociology at Cardiff University, a grounding that may well have helped her to become the natural captain of the national side. She claims she didn’t know that the university had a very strong rugby team in those days, and we must believe her. She captained the side, then went on to captain Welsh Universities.
Against that, she trialled with English Students in her first year, was not selected and never returned to them. Such can be the rocky path to the top! She spent her playing days with Worcester and Bristol, but her career was highlighted by distinguished service to England. She took over the captaincy from Sue Day in 2007, leading to the climax of that unforgettable World Cup final at the Stoop in 2010. In front of a seething crowd the home team got as close to defeating the inevitable Kiwis as they have managed in four attempts (10-13). That didn’t make the pain of the result any easier to bear. It had a marked effect on her for a long period.
She subsequently gave up the captaincy, but went on playing for England for a year more. Since her retirement, she has been very busy. She worked for a period for the RFU, but her newly formed company Inspiring Women – helping women’s voices to be heard as keynote speakers at conferences and so on – was taking up her time. It still thrives. Her voice is frequently heard in the media, commentating on women’s rugby. She was busy helping ITV with its coverage of the World Cup in Ireland.
Last year, Old Elthamians asked her to take charge of the women’s section they were setting up. She agreed, and this season, their first in an established league, they are currently unbeaten. OEs must be congratulated, not only on their decision to embrace women’s rugby, but their wise choice of Director of Rugby. Her ambitions for them are steep but rational. It will take a few seasons to reach the point of challenging for a place in the Premier League, but that is her firm intent.
Catherine has trenchant and fascinating views on the current state of England women’s rugby. For example, the 7s and 15s programs should be fully separated; that is, players should commit to one or the other. Unsurprisingly, she wants 15s to be assured of its primacy, but she recognises the magnetism of the 7s game, both at the elite level – the Olympics – and locally, in less developed parts of the world. She has spent time in Africa spreading the gospel of rugby to willing customers. At the moment, 15s needs supporting for all it’s worth.
Strikingly, she says in an ideal world players should not be paid for playing for their country. Their clubs alone should pay them. This of course relates to the men’s game, but she is most unhappy about the newly introduced match fees for the Red Roses. In no way do they resolve the problem of adjusting work to play. The current England squad preparing for the 2018 6 Nations is in the same position as generations of past players, like herself, in having to ask for time off to get to extended training sessions. Fortunately, they have always been dab hands at maintaining good relations with their bosses. The offer of fees is a gesture, but not the perfect one.
On the field of play, she is unhappy at the regular emptying of the bench as replacements. She senses that the value of the cap is being diminished when all eight reserves can be certain of getting on the field of play. She saw this as one weakness of the World Cup final in Belfast.
She has written a book relating her experiences on and off the field entitled, ‘Mud, Maul and Mascara: how I led my country and lived to tell the tale’, which she is hoping to get published soon. You can add your name to the pledge-list via
For sure, this is a remarkable woman with a remarkable tale to tell and an inspiration to youngsters who dream of great things.