When England Women beat Canada 21-9 in the 2014 Rugby World Cup final, the country celebrated – but one person admits it wasn’t a moment of total joy.
Catherine Spencer, whose biggest dream had been to win a World Cup, retired before she had that chance, and while she was happy to see her former team-mates lifting the trophy, the former England captain says the overriding emotion she felt that day was envy.
“I remember it so vividly,” says Spencer, who was working as a TV pundit at the game. “I was quite relieved that we were on Sky because we went for an advert break and I composed myself and the make-up guy came over and patched up the mascara that was running down my face!
“I found it really hard. Through the game I was ok, it was fairly apparent that England were going to win sometime before the end, but as soon as that final whistle went, I think I was holding onto something…
“I was obviously pleased that England had won, but I was also extremely devastated. All those memories came back of me working towards that dream three or four years ago. It was really hard, and probably most of my tears from that day were for myself and disappointment, and I have to say; jealousy.
“People say time’s a great healer. Of course my emotions are not quite so raw as they were in 2010 [when England were beaten 13-10 in the final by New Zealand], and when I retired in 2011, and then 2014. I was commentating at the next World Cup for the women, and at the end of that game I just felt a bit numb. My emotions seemed to have disappeared somewhere – hopefully they will come back at some point!”
Spencer opened up about those emotions in her autobiography, Mud, Maul, Mascara, and says that she has found in being honest about how she felt, other people have revealed similar thoughts.
“It was hard to write it down,” she said. “But actually when you speak to other people it was similar emotions for other people in rugby and other sports when you’ve potentially been so close to something, or people who have just missed out on selection for a major tournament and then they go and see their team win.
“All elite sports people are competitive otherwise they wouldn’t be there. A lot of team sports the team does have to come first, otherwise it wouldn’t function, but you’ve also got your individual goals and aims and dreams and ambitions within that.
“I always said retirement is the toughest challenge of my England career. I think it’s really hard for any sportsperson at whatever level.
“There’s a whole range and mix of emotions that we have to deal with somehow and at the time we don’t know if it’s right the emotions that we are feeling and we don’t know if other people are feeling like that, and actually more often than not they are.”
Delving into those emotions was not the only reason Spencer decided to write a book; it had been a long-held ambition of hers before she was an England international.
“I had been thinking about it for quite some time,” she said. “I quite like writing; I’m probably a word person rather than a numbers person and I’ve always enjoyed it. Over the last few years I’ve written for various papers and stuff.
“For a long time I’ve had this ambition to write a book. When I was younger I always thought ‘what am I going to write about? a philosophical book?’ because I did philosophy at university.
“And then I thought I should write my story. I was really aware that there are very few women’s sports books out there, and even fewer women’s rugby books. I was lucky enough to be involved in the sport in a time of great change; going from very little profile and attention to a lot more. So it was an interesting time to be involved in the sport.
“A lot of people say ‘I’m going to write a book’ – I thought ‘well I’m just going to do it!’
“I’m really pleased I’ve written it myself. There’s nothing wrong with ghostwriters, a lot of sports people use them, but I thought if I write a book I want to write it myself. Some days were harder than others in terms of getting it done, thinking ‘why on earth have I done this?’, but if you start something you have to finish it!”
The adjustment from player to former player certainly had an impact on Spencer, but one thing that came as a relief was the chance to adjust her alarm clock.
“I’ve never been a morning person, so that was always quite hard!” she said. “I remember Graham Smith, our forwards coach, saying ‘all you need to do is just move one leg out of bed, and the rest will follow’. I literally used to do that in the mornings in the winter. It became your normal life. It’s just what you did every week.
“I trained with Sophie Hemming, the England prop who was based down in Bristol – we lived quite close together. So you go in training for yourself, but you also go in for your training partner. It’s really important that you’re there together.
“It was really good for me to train with Sophie; she had an incredible work ethic, but in a way that was the easy bit and actually when I retired I missed that training, I missed going to the gym and pushing myself doing weights.
“Everyone says you can carry on doing that but it’s not the same. I found that quite hard actually, I missed those training sessions. But didn’t miss the early mornings!”
Spencer says early starts were not her only sacrifice as a player; that she missed some special moments off the field in the name of pursuing her ambitions.
“I remember one year I was due to go to one of my best friend’s weddings. The date came out and I thought ‘brilliant I can actually go to it’, it didn’t conflict with any summer tours or training weekends.
“I was so looking forward to this wedding, and then the date of our Nations Cup tournament that was being held in Canada changed, which meant that I could no longer go to her wedding. I was absolutely gutted. I mean I could have made the choice to go to the wedding, but I couldn’t really, I couldn’t make that choice over going on tour with England.
“I made those choices all the way through my career, even in the early stages, going to training days when it would have been easy to say ‘I can’t make it, I’m going to a wedding’. I didn’t do that because I knew the importance of commitment to the cause. My friends are really supportive, but you look back and think: I did something amazing but I also missed a lot of things.
“When I was playing I never resented that; I was doing this because I wanted to win the World Cup, so I was very clear in my mind why I was living the life I was, but it was really hard at times.”
The former number eight says she has enjoyed seeing the recent growth in support of women’s rugby.
“It’s great isn’t it? I can’t help but compare it to when I first started. It wasn’t really accepted that women played rugby, there was still a lot of opposition and a lot of raised eyebrows.
“Now, because it’s so visible it’s not unusual, it’s not followed up with shock and surprise and then ‘what on earth are you doing?’
“If I step back and look at the bigger picture, I’m pleased that in my small way I’ve been able to contribute to the growth of the sport.”
Spencer has contributed to the growth of the sport at all levels, especially at grassroots through her projects with the Atlas Foundation.
“I’ve been involved in Tag Rugby Trust charity since 2006 or 2007 on various projects and I’ve been away about 20 times with them to various countries.
“In the last few years we’ve been developing a project called Female Inspiration Through Rugby, or FITR, which is currently in Zimbabwe and it’s a project that Atlas has supported and significantly they have helped us build a clubhouse in Harare Sports Club which is going to be used by the wider community by Tag Rugby Trust.
“It’s also a place for the FITR project and for girls and young women to play rugby, but also to speak to each other, to hold workshops.
“It’s a safe space for girls and young women to go to, which is a really important thing. Though FITR we train mentors and we use rugby as the vehicle for that.
“To be involved with Tag Rugby Trust and doing that around the world, I’ve adored it. Following on from that I’ve taken my stories and experiences abroad which Atlas have helped to fund which has been really good. Seeing the power of sport in the wider world and using some of my experiences to help that has been great.
“Rugby may have shut some doors for me but it’s also opened up others which has been really good.”