This week, the Women’s Sports Alliance had the pleasure of chatting to women’s rugby legend and former England captain, Catherine Spencer. From World Cup heartache, to becoming an author, to finding joy in a new career,  Spencer spoke of the highs and lows of being an elite rugby player and shared her thoughts on the current state of the women’s game in England.

Spencer’s route into rugby began at an early age. Like many others to have played the sport, she attributes her rugby-oriented family to have been the main driving force behind her career. Having watched her father, elder brother, and twin brother all play for local club Folkestone, it was seemingly inevitable that Spencer herself would play rugby too.

To begin with, Spencer played mini-rugby alongside her twin brother for Folkestone, doing so for three or four seasons. However, when she was just eleven years old, Spencer was forced to stop participating, as there were no girls rugby sides to play for. Spencer explained, “Youth rugby for girls didn’t exist back then, it wasn’t a thing. So, I finished playing at eleven , thinking that I wouldn’t play again until I was a lot older.” Thankfully for Spencer, her wait to return to the sport lasted only three years, as her local club Folkestone set up a Ladies side, where aged just fourteen, she began to play senior rugby, 

Aside from family, Spencer spoke of the role that two high-profile female athletes played in inspiring her to embark on a career in sport. She revealed, “When I was growing up there were a lot less females in sports media, but in the wider context, Sally Gunnell was a female sporting heroine, and she was one female athlete that was in the (public) eye as an Olympic Hurdler. I quite liked the way she was this amazing athlete , and she seemed like a really down to earth woman, who also went to work.”  

In terms of inspirational figures within rugby, Spencer was quick to herald former England Captain Gill Burns, for being one of her early role models. She added, “As I was getting older, I was starting to hear about women’s rugby and see it , and I remember seeing Gill Burns on this programme called Rugby Special every Sunday. I was around 15 or 16 at the time, and thought she was pretty amazing, and had hopes that I could be like that one day.” As it so happened, Spencer’s career would take her to the pinnacle of women’s rugby, as just as her hero Gill Burns, she became England Captain.  

Spencer’s journey to the captaincy was far from easy, enduring many challenges and moments of uncertainty along the way. When asked to describe her course to the captaincy, Spencer smiled, and said, “When I first started playing mini-rugby, I didn’t know that women played at that level, I didn’t know that England had a (women’s) team.  For me, really I just wanted to get to the next step. “ 

She continued, “It was very much a step by step route into the England team. It took quite a while for me to gain confidence as a rugby player, but also as a person. I started to feel that I should be there and started to get myself to do more things; being a player rep and things like that. After Sue Day retired in 2007, I thought ‘I could do this, I could be a leader’.” Soon after, Spencer was named England captain, going on to lead her country through a host of standout moments, including a World Cup Final, and several Six Nations tournaments, to name but a few. 

When asked to name her top highlight from her career, Spencer paused, let out a brief sigh, and replied, “This is always such a difficult question, because I have so many highlights… I have one from mini-rugby when I remember catching what felt like a massive up and under kick. I caught the ball and ran with it, which felt so good.” 

She added, “(In terms of England) If I had to pick out one, it would have to be beating New Zealand in 2009 at Twickenham. For me, it was my fiftieth cap as well, so it was all timed quite nicely.  It was the first time I had beaten them, as England we hadn’t beaten them since 2001, so individually, and for the squad, that was a highlight.” 

While Spencer enjoyed plenty of success during her career, namely those occasions when she represented her country, she also endured plenty of struggles.  Speaking of what she believes to have been the biggest challenge of her career, Spencer affirmed, “There’s a few, not loads, I was fortunate to win lots of times with England, but it has to be losing in 2010(the Rugby World Cup Final). When we lost the World Cup Final in 2006, I was really disappointed, I felt really devastated at the time, but losing in 2010 was the emotion from 2006 multiplied by about a million times, because I really felt like we should have won that game. I was captain as well, which added another different dimension.”

In describing the difference between the two World Cup Final heartaches, Spencer clarified, “I pretty much knew at the time that I probably would not go to another World Cup (after 2010), so that was my low point. Now eleven years on, I’m still trying to deal with that…. Probably never fully will. In all honesty, it’s the obvious one, but that’s the definite low point.” 

Given that she had a career that spanned such high triumphs and such devastating defeats, it was only natural that Spencer would one day turn to telling her story, to  attempt to chronicle the emotional rollercoaster that encompassed her career. In February last year, Spencer did exactly that, by sitting down to write her autobiography, entitled ‘Mud, Maul, Mascara: When fighting for a dream can make you and break you’.  

When asked to describe the experience of writing something so revealing and personal as an autobiography, Spencer said, “I wrote the book for two reasons; firstly, for me, because I felt the need package my career up, and secondly, to try to help redress the balance, to encourage more female books to be on the shelves in bookstores. “ She continued, “It talks a lot about losing the World Cup and having to deal with those emotions. I talk a lot about being a woman playing rugby, and the need to want to be a woman, and being happy about being a woman. But also, the difference that comes because of that, both financially and emotionally, and comparing myself to male counterparts.” 

More than a decade on from retiring from the game, Spencer has continued to work in rugby, often appearing as a commentator and studio pundit on men’s and women’s fixtures for broadcast television and participating in charity projects for the Tag Rugby Trust. Having seen such change happen within rugby since she began playing, Spencer believes that the future looks bright for the sport. She noted, “Men’s rugby turned professional in the 90s, women’s rugby was obviously a long way behind that, and is just starting to creep into professionalism. I think we are fortunate in England with the structure and infrastructure we’ve got.”

Yet, in spite of the huge progress made in rugby since her retirement, Spencer was adamant that she would not swap her career for that of a current player, as she valued the balance between working and playing.  She stated, “ I think about this a lot, would I have wanted to be a full time rugby player? And my answer is definitely no. I would have been quite happy to have been a part time rugby player, I would love to have been paid so that I could train properly, so I could sleep properly, so I could organise my life properly, but I would always want something else there. “

While her passion for rugby is unwavering, in moving away from the game, Spencer has truly come into her own.  She explained, “I ran my speaker agency, Inspiring Women, for a number of years , I set that up and ran that since I retired… I got married and had a daughter, and now I’m doing a career change. I’m training to be a teacher at the moment. “ Spencer concluded, “ I’ve always had to work, I never got paid to play rugby, so I’ve always worked different jobs, but it’s brought all of that together and I’m absolutely loving teaching at the moment, and being in the classroom, both virtually and face to face.”