Mud, Maul, Mascara: How I Led My Country, and Lived to Tell the Tale

By Catherine Spencer

The inspirational story of a woman who just wanted to have fun, find love and win the rugby World Cup

In August 2014 I was working as a studio pundit for Sky Sports as the England Women’s rugby team won the World Cup. I watched the captain, Katy McLean, lift the trophy aloft. I saw former team mates and friends with such joy on their faces. I understood the extremity of their emotions because I too had tears streaming down my face. However, my tears were for the hurt that I had carried for four years, and will probably always feel. A wound that had started to heal was torn open as I stood apart in that TV studio and watched my former team finally lift the coveted World Cup.

In 2006 I had stood with my team mates at the end of the World Cup final watching New Zealand take the title after a game that we could have won. In 2010 I had to watch my opposing captain from New Zealand take to the podium and lift the cup after we lost by three points. But in 2014 I watched England win a World Cup final, three years after I retired. I’m proud of those women, but I still feel bitterness, jealousy, and immense hurt.

Had England not won without me in 2014, my own 2006 and 2010 World Cup Final wounds would be two scars I would feel proud of. Instead, they make me ashamed. Now that England Women have won the World Cup after my time I feel that my battle scars are worth nothing. Because what do you really win for coming second? How do I get over this? How do I find purpose and a direction in my life that makes my battle scars worth the pain? Do I cover them up? Do I take a new path? Or do I use that pain as fuel to power me on?

Some people say that England women won in 2014 because of those who fought before them, who paved the way and gave others something to aspire to. Those who build foundations for others, the worker ants, are selfless people. But I was selfish: I wanted to win a World Cup. I did not devote my life to building foundations for others; I devoted my life to achieving my dream.

During the years I played for England, rugby was my life. We worked as hard as any world class athletes, but unlike the men’s teams, we were not paid. So training started at 6am before we went to our full time jobs. I did weights sessions, speed training and endurance around paid work. Weekends were for matches, both club and international. I chose to miss birthdays and weddings; not to develop a career; to hardly see friends or spend quality time with a boyfriend. I made those choices wholeheartedly. But I did it to fulfil my dream, not to allow younger women to achieve it instead of me.

I have learnt to feel proud of my rugby ‘career’, and I really do enjoy telling my story, but that has been a huge challenge since 17 August 2014 when the World Cup trophy was held high by an England arm. Retirement is tough. Making your own decision to stop doing the thing that you love is tough. To give up any chance of achieving your dream is tough. But to watch other people achieve your dream without you is indescribable. There is no life manual for this, no self-help book, and no instruction pamphlet to turn to.

After the 2014 World Cup final ended and filming wrapped up in the studio I was taken back home to my house in Kent. I let myself in, made myself a bowl of pasta and a large cup of tea, and just sat. I hardly ate. I felt as though I had just broken up from a relationship: slightly ill, shattered, and very sad. I was enduring one of the worst times of my life, on my own, knowing that some of my closest friends were on the other side of the Channel enjoying probably the best night ever. This was to date the biggest night ever for women’s rugby, something that I felt and still feel hugely passionate about. Why could I not feel happy? And where could I go from here?

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