"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
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Catherine Spencer, London, Unbound 2020. ISBN 978-1-78352-813-4This is the autobiography of Catherine Spencer, England Rugby captain. It is a book about rugby and also about women’s rugby. Incidentally – according to the book, it is OK to call it “women’s rugby” but only if you call the game Owen Farrell plays “men’s rugby”! As an example, Spencer’s comments that “beautiful essence of the game is being gradually destroyed by the perceived need for bigger muscle and the gym culture” are arguably as true of the men’s game as the women’s.
The book starts with a poignant account of Spencer watching England win the World Cup 2014 and sharing the excitement before going home and sitting in darkness because the 2014 triumph brought back bitter memories of her own two World Cup final defeats.
The book tells the story of her journey through rugby, playing for the sheer joy of it and progressing through the ranks to play for England. She shares honestly her desire to be England captain and having the courage to tell the coach. Then there is the issue of when to retire, making the announcement and regretting it. She is honest about the price of reaching the top: “I made choices to miss best friends’ weddings. I made a personal choice to not develop a career, I made choices to hardly see friends, I made the choice to not spend quality time with my boyfriend, I made choice to justify this dream”.
On the subject of boyfriends, there is a hilarious chapter about the men in her life: Mr Right, Mr why on earth did I say No, Mr The man, Mr 20 years older than he said, Mr Practice Man, Mr Nearly Right etc.
The challenges and contradictions of her life – well summed up in the book title – are faced honestly. At one level she is the fearless, powerful England Number 8. At another she is “a girl who is afraid of the dark, who is afraid of spiders, a girl who sometimes wants to like a princess who wants to feel girly and feminine”. She describes the dilemma of actually liking it when someone tells her she is too pretty to play rugby but feeling guilty for liking it. At the other end of the spectrum on a night out in her prettiest frock, she hates to be told “I would not like to get on the wrong side of you” or “You have really big hands”. The dilemma is summed up: “This apparent distinction between being a girl and playing rugby is something that I have struggled with and I have struggled with why it matters what other people think. Why am I so sensitive to the thought that strangers don’t think I am feminine, based on the one fact that I played rugby?”
She explains the challenge of being a professional woman in the modern world of sport: “A woman doing work in sport is responsibly not just for herself but for 50 per cent of the population. We represent our gender in a different way to men, we are under the magnifying glass whether we like it or not”. As a result it seems to be so much easier for male ex-players to get media positions than women. She sums up: “By reading this book you will have gain some insight into the constant battles and knock-downs that on their own may seem insignificant but the add up to being quite draining and potentially damaging”.
She tells a story of doing a joint press conference with England men’s captain but having to pay own travel expenses and worrying if she could afford a sandwich in such an expensive hotel. By the end of the book, her frustration is still there but she is able to recognize that she has played her part in opening doors of opportunity for the next generation to walk through.
An excellent, thought-provoking and important book.