For many people, the journey from playing rugby for the first time to playing for their country is a long road.
For some there’s 15 or 20 years between the two, for others it may be as little as 10. For Claudia MacDonald, it was a single World Cup cycle.
The 24-year-old went from ‘giving rugby a go’ in her first year at Durham University to committing fully to the sport two years later in the 2017/18 season. The following season she had been capped by England, and in January 2019 she was awarded an England EPS agreement.
“I played about 10 matches in my first two years of playing rugby,” MacDonald said.
“I was playing netball in my first year of university and dipping in and out of rugby, and in my second year I was injured and came back in January for the last four games of the season.
“In my third year, my final year, I decided to give rugby a proper go. I’d learned a lot and had been in and around it for two years without actually playing a lot.
“I decided to commit to it, and played for a Premiership side as well as the university first XV. I put my head down and the following year I found myself at an England camp.”
Given the speed with which things progressed, MacDonald says balancing netball with her new love of rugby was not easy, and on some days there was an overlap between the two.
“I picked up rugby and really liked it, but netball were quite strict on me remaining as a netballer because that’s what I had committed to at the beginning of the year. They said ‘you’re here to play netball but if you can play rugby around that then go for it’.
“Two or three times I went straight from a netball court, headed straight to rugby, ran into the changing room, got changed and ran out just in time for the start of the match. So it was all a bit quick and a bit stressful but I loved it!”
MacDonald started life as a centre but says her tendency was to always look to finish rather than pass, so rather than coach it out of her, she was moved to the outside backs.
“When I went to the Premiership I played for DMP Sharks up in the north and they played me on the wing and then moved me to 15 which I was really enjoying, I loved playing in the back three,” she said.
However, there was to be another change in position not long thereafter.
“England backs coach Scott Bemand came to one of our matches, we were playing against Wasps ironically,” said MacDonald who now plays for Wasps FC Ladies. “He asked me pass the ball to him from the floor. I did it and I thought ‘This is weird, why is he asking me to do this? Don’t go chucking me into nine just because you think I’m small!’
“But I trusted his decision and I’m now very grateful he approached me about it.”
While it took time for MacDonald to come to terms with (yet another) new position, she says she has learned to embrace the challenge of the number nine jersey.
“I think I probably struggled with the position in the first year because it was harder to learn. It was quite quick to learn about, and get relatively good at, back three because I was quick and quite strong and I enjoyed tackling people.
“With scrum-half there is a lot more understanding of the game that’s behind the position which I didn’t necessarily have.
“So I definitely got quite frustrated with it, and it’s only really now that I love the position – I do love it now, as much as I joke about it!
“Initially I allowed it to bring me down. I thought at the time I could probably fight my own battle as a back-three player and break into the squad there, but I’m now loving playing scrum-half, enjoying the challenge of developing there and the influence I can have on a game. A couple of times already I’ve landed a position on the wing for England, so hopefully playing scrum-half is simultaneously making me a better back-three player as well!
“In the last couple of months there’s been a switch in my head where I now consider myself a scrum-half who can play on the wing as opposed to a back-three player who’s just found herself at scrum-half. There was a breakthrough moment when I played on the wing against New Zealand last summer and they moved me to scrum-half in the last 15 minutes of the game.
“My perception of the game moving from wing to scrum-half was massive, because I’d been out on the wing so I knew where I wanted the ball to go and I knew where the space was and where we’d been trying to get the ball to.
“Moving to scrum-half, I had the ability to do that more, to influence and impact that side of the game.
“It’s been really good fun, and it’s been interesting to find a way to play nine that still allows me to do the things that I really like in rugby which is running with the ball and finding space.”
Describing her debut as “amazing and surreal all at the same time”, MacDonald says she is excited to play a part in women’s rugby at a pivotal stage in its development.
“England played a double header against the Barbarians last year and our game was straight after the men’s match,” she said.
“We came out onto the pitch just as the men were finishing their game; just as the whistle went we came out. I stopped and allowed myself to look around the stadium because rarely if ever are we going to get the opportunity to walk out into a completely packed Twickenham Stadium and the amount of noise that creates.
“That was particularly amazing, and it would be fabulous if we could have that eventually at one of our games. That was definitely a moment where I was like ‘oh wow this is cool’.
“The girls joke saying the crowd has moved on from you recognising everyone in the crowd or everyone in the crowd being related to a player. That’s certainly not the case anymore.
“We’re in that interim period of where we are playing in some stadiums that we are completely packing out and the tickets are selling out, but do we push and go for the slightly bigger stadiums and see what happens? It’s an exciting time to be involved in the sport for sure.”
As we have learned from MacDonald, there’s often more than one plate spinning, and staying with that theme she recently decided to become an Atlas Foundation champion. While she influences women’s rugby at the top level with her play, she is also hoping to make a difference to young girls who may not have considered picking up a rugby ball until now.
“At times it’s been difficult to do as much of the charity work as I want to because of being in camp and having minimal if any control over my calendar.
“I’ve been in contact with Ben Nicholson who is heading up a few bits in Singapore which I’d love to get more involved with and really help to do more women’s rugby.
“When you’re introducing rugby to people from the get-go they don’t know whether it’s a men’s or women’s sport to start with. They don’t know that rugby is seen as traditionally a male sport , so why can’t we introduce it as a completely unisex sport? Or if it’s a school of girls, why can’t we just say it’s a girl’s sport?
“I’d just love to see more girls benefitting from playing rugby. It can give people that confidence, and that leads to more independence, after which confidence comes out across the rest of their lives as well.”