Catherine Spencer, former England Women’s Rugby Captain, joined us for lunch, where we wanted to explore the world of women’s rugby and how one of the most well-known international players is finding her new direction in the world of business.
As a child, at the age of 9, when she started playing mini Rugby in Folkestone with her brothers, the club didn’t have a women’s team. This meant that there came a point where she would no longer be able to compete in the same squad and was resigned to the fact she would have to wait until she went on to university. In the 1980’s, rugby was definitely a male-dominated sport and, although that has changed somewhat now, the path to success is not as coveted as for the male counterparts.
However, when she was 14, Catherine read in her local newspaper that Folkestone was starting a ladies’ team. This was a moment that would change the destiny of the young sportswoman’s life.
“Before I went to university, I was selected for the Kent and the South East squads, both of which I was extremely proud. I then went off to Cardiff University, not realising that they were one of the strongest sides in women’s rugby at the time. The first time I played at Twickenham was with them, where a number of my friends and my dad came to watch. It was a wonderful moment. Little did I know that Twickenham would be a ground I would set foot on many times in the future for my country.
I went off travelling for a year with my twin brother and during that time didn’t play any rugby. It was at this time that I made a decision to ‘give the rugby thing a try’ when I got back home. After eating pies and drinking beer for a year, I wasn’t exactly in the best shape, although I did come back to the UK via Asia, so I did lose a bit of weight there.
Changes in lifestyle and an elite athlete approach followed, in order to get to a standard of mental and physical fitness that was required to play for England. My new coach at the time, put me into trials, which basically got me through onto the fringes of England, the pathway if you like. It was just over a year-and-a-half, after returning from travelling, that I won my first cap in 2004, whilst still playing for Folkestone, I was 24. It was against Wales and is something I will never forget.”
Coming from a strong sporting family didn’t mean that Catherine was pushed beyond what she wanted to achieve;
“My parents were proud of what I had achieved and, if I hadn’t gone on to play for England, they would have been proud of how far I’d got. They weren’t pushy. My dad drove me everywhere, which was good. My brothers also played rugby but they didn’t push themselves the way I did. My twin brother probably could have played at a higher level up in Manchester, but then he kept getting injured and always said that he was taking my injuries, as I didn’t seem to get any! We are all massively supportive of each other and always have been.
I got a couple of caps during the Six Nations of that year, then in the summer I was due to go off to Canada on tour. I had been playing in a tournament in Folkestone and I injured my knee. I ruptured a blood vessel, it wasn’t a massive injury, no structural damage but it meant I couldn’t go on tour with England. I was gutted. Having had a taster, it was hard to miss out, so I spent the summer getting my knee back in shape, training on the shingle beach in Hythe.
I was motivated to get back into the squad, which I did, and then I was pretty much in most of the time. Playing rugby became a massive part of my life. Unfortunately, for the female squad, most of us had to juggle our careers with working full-time. Which meant I was either; working, training or actually playing.
I was still playing for Folkestone but after 2006 I wanted to move away from home and it was about time I played in the premiership. I moved to Bristol and played for Worcester for a couple of years before then playing for Bristol, both of which are premiership teams. It was the right time for me, as you need to be playing against the people you are competing with and alongside. Folkestone were brilliant to me and I often visit them. They are hugely supportive of women playing rugby.
Whilst in Bristol, I worked for the South Gloucestershire Leisure Trust and, during this time, I developed my confidence as a player. In 2006, after the World Cup, many of the senior players made the decision to retire and, suddenly, I was one of the new senior players. I decided to put my name in the fold for the Captaincy but I wasn’t convinced about my eligibility. I was a fairly quiet person and wasn’t, at that time, one of the more established members of the squad. I called Gary Street, the coach at the time, and let him know I would like to be considered for the role. We didn’t have any games for a couple of months so I put it out of my mind. He then called me to say he wanted me to be captain and I was like, ‘blimey’ -I was about to go out the door totraining. I hadn’t mentioned it toanyone else, only him, and so when itcame, I couldn’t quite believe it.
One of the first decisions I made was that I didn’t want the former captain to be my mentor. I get on really well with her, but I wanted to develop my own captaincy. I am a different person.
Making that decision gave me confidence. From then on, I forced myself to make decisions, even if I didn’t feel as though I had the knowledge or experience. I was aware how important it was to get respect from the rest of the team. I already had their respect as a player, but I didn’t yet have respect as a leader as I jumped from being a peer to their captain.”
Going from peer to leader wasn’t an easy transition;
“There were one or two people in the squad who didn’t want me to be captain and I had to go through quite a tough process with that. We had two summer camps in 2009 and I never missed rugby training, I missed loads of things in my personal life such as weddings, but never training. I am patron of a charity, which I’ll explain about later, and I really wanted to go out to Uganda with the charity while I was captain.
They allowed me to miss the summer camp but, during that camp, there were a number of rumblings about my captaincy and a couple of people were trying to oust me. I was made aware of what had been going on and I remember feeling quite lonely. I was at a point where I thought, do I carry this on? The 2010 World Cup was coming up and I questioned myself, whether I could be a player or continue as Captain. I really wanted to do this.
I accepted that when you have a group of people, it’s hard to keep them all happy all of the time. I’ll please most of the people most of the time, and I was happy with that.
At the next summer camp, which was a few weeks later, I got the ‘unhappy’ ones in a room and told them I am here to stay so deal with it. It was a tough thing to go through but a really good thing to do, to confront the situation head on. At that moment I felt a much stronger leader.” How do you deal with conflict and keeping players in line, like with timekeeping etc?
“You do have to distance yourself at times. When you have to speak quite sternly to your mates, it challenges the relationships. However, this is part of being the Captain, it comes with the territory. It’s the same in business when one person is promoted over another person, you have to keep the relationships strong while maintaining your new found authority.”
You led the squad into the 2010 World Cup, which took place on home soil. How was that experience?
“Looking back, I realise that to be captain going into the World Cup, there was a lot of pressure. I really was enjoying the experience and was getting used to dealing with the media.
The World Cup was incredible. Unfortunately, we lost by just 3 points in the final and having to deal with that was really hard. I knew I didn’t want to retire at that point, so continued for another season. In 2011, I was 31 and didn’t think I had what it would take, either emotionally or physically, to make the 2014 World Cup.
I did know that the decision to retire would be mine and not made for me. I had already stepped away from the captaincy when I decided to tell the coaches about my retirement. In some ways, I wish I hadn’t, as I had never really been subbed, but during the Six Nations tournament that year, I was subbed.
My final game for England was against Ireland and I went on after about 30 minutes. I probably didn’t have the best game, as I was overaware of the clock ticking down on my career. When the final whistle went, I just burst into tears. We did win the Grand Slam and I knew that I would never experience that again. Then, at 31 I was suddenly retired, although I was still working for the RFU as Women and Girl’s development officer, a position I decided to move away from in 2014.”
In total, Catherine played 63 Caps, an impressive amount, and she was the preferred choice for the number 8 position in the squad between 2004-2011, when she hung up her International boots and retired.
“Having been in such a coveted position for all those years, I wanted to be able to do something with the influence I had built up.
The charity I am patron of is the ‘Tag Rugby Trust’, which was set up in 2002, and I became involved in 2007 as an ambassador, later ‘upgraded’ to patron. The charity is about building futures through rugby, and I’ve been very fortunate to have been on nine trips with the organisation to countries such as Uganda, teaching youngsters and adults how to play tag rugby, the non-contact sport.
Through these trips, the lessons continue to be learnt, as people continue to coach long after we have left. It is much more than us simply arriving in a village, handing over a few rugby balls and then leaving. There is a legacy being created each time. Sometimes we take a group of English school children away with us, or a corporate group, which I love.
I am very much involved with the Trust, which is actually maintained by just four volunteers based here in the UK. The Tag Rugby Trust is looking to increase sponsorship to build its core funding and resource capacity to deliver more programmes – the desire and need is there but currently resources are stretched.”
The England Squad won the World Cup in 2014 and you covered the tournament for Sky, how was that change of role? “I really enjoyed being in the Sky studio, commentating etc., but when
the final whistle blew and we had won, all the old emotions came
flooding back. Seeing someone else raise the cup was really hard and I started to think that I had destroyed my own dream. I, once again, had to deal with the upheaval of being retired and, although this knocked me back personally, I knew I had to use what I had learned and refocus my attention.”
Catherine has launched her own business, ‘Inspiring Women’, a
speaker agency for successful sports women to share their stories at events all over the country.
“The first speaker I booked was for a fairly high-profile rugby event. At that time I didn’t have a website, didn’t have business cards and only had one speaker on my books. I had a taste of what possibilities there were out there and now I am focused on
building the business into something that delivers the right speaker for the right event.
I don’t want to have hundreds of speakers on the books. As it is now, I know their stories, I know them as people and so I can make sure the placement objective is met.
I had no idea what my aim was, it has changed a lot now and I am focused on building a sustainable business. I am also aware that I definitely wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t had the rugby captain experience. With that role, I was able to develop my
confidence as a leader, and I’m now developing confidence as a business person.”
We will watch this development with a keen eye and wish Catherine every success in her ‘inspiring’ venture.