Gill Burns MBE is a one club player, Waterloo (now Firwood Waterloo) and also captained Lancashire, The North, England & The World XV ... and the Waterloo Vets. She is Lancashire RFU President 2019/20.
She found time to talk about her life in rugby.
Gill - at the start of your career you played a lot of different sports but also danced
My mum was a dance teacher so I was dancing before I could walk. I have always danced but it became apparent at an early age that I wasn’t going to be a ballerina. I still enjoy dancing and only retired from my mum’s dance school in my mid 30s. I was also a dancer whilst I played for England.
Do you see a link between dance and sport?
Yes, I think that’s why people bounced off me. Dance, and ballet in particular, gave me great core stability. I mean sports science is much better now than it was then so I didn’t understand why I was quite as strong I was. When I first started playing rugby I knew I was powerful but people couldn’t tackle me as I had this strong core from dancing and other sports. It very much helped me in the lineout too, which was my forte. In those days of course there was no lifting it was just about jumping power. So I had power and the ability to push people away and get high up in the air. I used to win lots of lineouts. I definitely think my dancing helped to become a strong and powerful rugby player.
You studied at Chester College (now the University of Chester) and were a county hockey player?
Hockey was my main winter sport when I was at Chester. I also played basketball, swimming, athletics . . . I played lots of sports.
So why did you decide to give rugby a try?
I had been a PE teacher for just about a year and I was keen to teach all sports to children. I introduced the boys to dance which at the start they did not like but when they realised you could use cool themes like ‘Granstand’ it meant they could link their dancing to other sports, they loved it. I also did cricket and football for the girls – things that girls had not had the chance to try before and I wanted to give them those opportunities.
I had gone to a hockey tournament in Hightown when we played on the grass. I was playing for Chester against Hightown and I knocked over one of the Hightown players as I went through to score a goal. She obstructed me as she turned her back on me (in those days you could not turn your back on the opposition). So I knocked her out the way, scored the goal and then went to help her up. She said “the way you play hockey, you should be a rugby player.” I thought she was being funny with me so I replied “you did obstruct me” but she came back “I’m not having a go at you, I just think that you would be a good rugby player. I play rugby and enjoy it and you should too.”
So for the rest of the game all I could think of maybe I should give this a go, another game, another opportunity. I spoke to her after the game and there was also another girl in the team who played at Liverpool Poly. They both said come and play – they were both small and I think that they liked the look of someone who was nearly six foot tall and fast as I was a sprinter then. “We train at Waterloo Rugby Club and we’ll be there next Sunday. The next Sunday I drove up to Blundellsands, parked up and went onto the back pitch and saw a dozen girls in the far corner and an excited captain Julia ran down the pitch and said “Have you come to join us?” She seemed excited as most of them were five foot tall and then I arrived and I never looked back. As soon as I started that first session I knew that I had found the sport for me.
So why did you stay at Waterloo? You were clearly a talented player and you could have gone down south.
I was asked many times and I argued then and still argue today that if you are good enough to stay at your own club and make that better then every area should have a team that is of a standard that anyone locally can aspire to. I just felt that it was important that we had a team of quality in the North West. Me staying at the club did bring other people in and we were regularly fourth of fifth in the Premiership for a good decade. We beat all the big clubs, not routinely but we were a very competitive side with lots of internationals and that is when we were at our peak in the 1990s. People in the North West aspired to come to Waterloo because we were a recognised team, we had a few internationals who were prepared to stay and work with each other. We trained together, we had a fantastic, fantastic camaraderie, and we didn’t have the support that the players these days have. We did it ourselves and it meant more to us as we were the ones who set the training programmes, worked and trained together, and socialised together.
You have hinted at challenges that you faced as a player but also a woman player. Do you have any stories about that?
People have often been critical before they know anything about the game. Really it is not worth getting upset about those who make comments, but one thing I have done is to let people say what they want. If they are ignorant nothing you are going to say will change that if they have decided before they have even seen the game. I always like to give people the opportunity to watch a game, then they can make a comment and I will accept constructive criticism but only after they have had a chance to witness a game of rugby played by women who know how to play.
I know in the early days if you got a team of adult women who had never had anything to do with rugby, then the standard wasn’t as good as when people had been playing for a long time. Some people who watched women’s club games back then might have thought that the standard was poor but it was because it was a group of adult beginners. You rarely find adult males who start as absolute beginners as they will have played at school. The women were beginners and were learning the game, so I say don’t be critical until you have seen an international match.
I have recounted this next story many times. It was from the first women’s international match played at Waterloo in 1988 – England v Sweden. Mike Manning, who was one of the alikadoos, called me over after the game for a chat. We had beaten Sweden 42 – 0 I think. He said “Gill I have to be honest with you, I came here today to watch tits and bums (he had seen that Sweden were playing and imagined 30 women rolling around in the mud) but after five minutes I realised I was watching a bloody good game of rugger.” I did not realise how complimentary that comment was at the time. He had been sceptical about the standard of play thinking it was going to be something of a sideshow and in a way he was disappointed as he did watch a good game of rugby. He recognised that women could play and it was entertaining. He saw some good moves and tries that afternoon. What we tried to do was to change people’s perceptions.
I have to admit that the first game I saw I was impressed with the speed and commitment I saw on the pitch
It’s exactly the same as the men. The girls are very keen to learn. They are good to coach. A lot of male coaches when coaching women describe them as sponges because they have not had that history of rugby and they listen and learn. The women will commit just as much as the men to support their team mates. The standard now is not as good as it has been. Sadly, I believe the premiership side of 20-25 years ago was the strongest we ever had at the club because of the elite players. In recent years our better players have moved clubs to enhance their careers. These days they have a chance to be professional and earn money from the game and I have to say to them “good luck, and go” because you can’t stop someone wanting to progress. It is sad really though that we don’t have a North West team that is attractive enough for players to want to stay in the region.
In many ways you have been a trailblazer for others to follow
People have often said that, but it is not something that we realised we were doing 30 years ago. I just loved rugby, I wanted to do my best, I organised the matches, spoke to people in different areas, set up things informally because no one else did it for us. We might be now described as trailblazers but back then we just loved the game and wanted to play it, so we organised it.
And you slept on the floor of bars and lounges just to play?
I have slept in some dodgy places during my rugby career. In the early days we stayed in Youth Hostels to keep the cost down. For the first 10 of my 14 years playing for England we paid for everything ourselves, so dodgy cheap accommodation was a necessity.
The reference to sleeping on the floor of a bar was from the last World Cup in 2017 where I went as a paying fan. We decided to camp. It is ridiculous this. I played international rugby all of those years alongside my career as a school teacher, but all of my money went on rugby as that was my thing. I did not have any savings when I retired for playing as I bought into the game big style. So even today I have to be careful as I can’t afford to stay in posh hotels like the professionals can, so I needed to camp as did my friends. We were all going to camp in Belfast at one of the rugby clubs which doubled up a camping facility. Sadly for us the arrangement was cancelled at the last minute so we were without a place to camp. I rang around and all the camp sites were full but another wonderful welcoming club, Malone, said we could go and stay with them. They said we could camp on their field but we’d have to take your tents down for a touch rugby tournament at the end of the week. So we said a big thank you and we were relieved we had somewhere to stay. They would not take any money for us camping, they were so accommodating. We travelled over to Belfast and were just about to set up our tents when the President, the lovely Patrick Baird, came out and said “Do you know that there is a hurricane coming through on Wednesday?” We didn’t, but he continued, “Don’t camp here on the field, you can have the upstairs bar and camp in there”. The room was a bit like Waterloo’s lounge bar and there were eight or nine of us – it was perfect. We all had a section each, it was brilliant. We knew that at the weekend there was to be a social event in the bar we were camping in so we had to move into a large office, so all nine of us slept in a row in our sleeping bags but it was so funny, great camaraderie. One of the girls from Wasps who was in the 1994 World Cup winning team Giselle, she is now Wasps director of rugby, was just coming out to watch the final and rang me “Look, Burnsie I’ve got nowhere to stay, what do you recommend?” I told her if she brought a sleeping bag she could come into the office with us, so we had another one to add into the mix. She arrived the night before the final, and we all went to bed lying in a row, probably four or five ex-England players, Wales, Australia, a big group of us all having a good laugh. The lights went out and we could hear the ice running through the rafters, there were lots of shrieks, I said “It’s alright girls I’ve put some money on the Euro Millions tonight. If I win, tomorrow night we’ll all be staying in a posh hotel in town. Giselle said to me “Burnsie, this is brilliant and even if you do win we’re staying here again as we’re having such a good laugh. It’s great knowing your old rugby mates who have all been off and enjoyed their lives, careers, families etc but when you get back together it’s like you’ve never been apart. We can still have a bit of banter with each other, that will never go. So our camping choice was from necessity as we didn’t have much money to spend on hotels but the camping became the best sort of Glamping I could imagine - right next to the Club Bar!
What’s your favourite memory from your playing career?
It has to be winning the World Cup in 1994 – you can’t get any better so that is the big stand-out moment. Another memory, I can still remember to this day my first ever rugby match. I can remember moves, picking up the ball at the back of the scrum for the first time in my own half and literally having the thought process I’ve got to get past the people at the side of the scrum. I started to sprint, handing people off and feeling that sensation of pushing somebody back out of the way. I must have made a 30 yard break and when I was eventually tackled I pushed the ball back and realised then as the big girls, front and second rows pushed past in the ruck, why the big girls play in the pack. I started to understand how people’s jobs differed during the game. I got up off the floor and watched as our centre Sue made an outrageous dummy pass out to the winger, she and I saw the huge gap open up in the defence and she scored under the sticks. Sue had hurt her toe during the game and was our usual goal kicker. She was unable to take the conversion and nobody else wanted the responsibility so I had a go and the ball sailed through the sticks. That was the first of many goal kicks that I enjoyed with my old fashioned toe end kicking style. I even went on to kick goals in a World Cup Final. Still to this day I’ve never seen another woman score a penalty from their own half but those big toe end kicks travelled a long way. I thought this game is brilliant, so many parts to it, much to think about not just do, physically. I just loved that first game against York University.
So in your career you have been President of a club, entered into the Rugby Hall of fame, a county championship named after you, you have an MBE – that is quite extraordinary
It is. I am honoured to have had a wonderful career. I am privileged to have been physically able to play at the very highest level and rugby has given me life opportunities that I would never have had if I had not played the game. I am very grateful to the game and it has been a tremendous honour. It is lovely to represent Lancashire this year as President and perhaps no one expected a woman to be President of Lancashire County Rugby. Sadly it was a short season but nevertheless it has happened.
If we were ever going to get a woman President of Lancashire it was destined to be you.
Thank you. I was part of the small team that set up the first Lancashire v Yorkshire fixture. Me and my friend Jane, from Leeds. We had meetings at Birch Services on the M62, half way point for us to meet. We borrowed kit – the Colts kit from Lancashire and Jane borrowed Yorkshire kit and we started the first County fixtures 30 years ago this year.
And since you have stopped playing you have done some co-commentating on TV. How did that come about?
When I was President of the Women’s Rugby Union, it was completely separate from the RFU, there was no coverage of Women’s rugby. So when we went to the 2006 World Cup at Edmonton Canada, Rosie Williams who was then the Managing Director of Women’s rugby in England brought in a media company to film some games. The Women’s Union couldn’t afford to pay proper commentators, so she said “it’s you and me Burnsie”. Rosie who is really good was the main commentator and I was the co-commentator. We sat in an office watching a black and white seven inch screen to do live streaming of the matches We probably only got a few hundred people watching live, but it planted a seed. We were privileged at the end of that World Cup as they brought in real commentators for the semis and final and Rosie and I did co-commentary with Nigel Starmer-Smith one for each semi-final, a tremendous honour. Since then, in 2010 when we had the World Cup in England, Sky asked me to commentate for all the New Zealand Black Ferns games. I was President of England at the time and had duties on England match days so Sue Day had been another England captain became the England match commentator. I drew the short straw as it was very difficult to pronounce those New Zealand, Mauri names. I had to do my homework. I may have done one or two matches since then, like I enjoyed doing the Firwood Waterloo v DMP game just before Christmas. It doesn’t happen very often and I am not technically up with the game these days as most of the girls who are commentating now have only just retired so are up on all the technical lingo. You can safely call me a has been now – my commentary days, I suspect, are numbered.
Gill, a final question what’s next on your rugby journey?
Just to stay involved in the game as a fan. Who knows what will happen in the future?
At this time I need to earn some money as rugby has not paid me a penny over the years so I have launched a company making cushions out of sports kit. Sadly I launched the business on 1st March this year so have not been able to push it due to the current situation – other things are more important.
I make cushion covers out of sports kit. The aim is that customers send me their special sports shirts. Perhaps one that they used in a big match or is special to them for some other reason, and I make that into a cushion cover. I am mainly targeting the rugby community but am happy to make any sports shirt cushions. I charge a small amount for my time to supplement my paltry teacher’s pension. I retired very early from teaching to help my Mum, to look after my lovely Dad Ron, who had dementia. I took the hit on my pension as time with Dad was far more valuable than money. I hope that one day Cushty Kit (https://www.cushtykit.co.uk/) will be a little more successful than it is at the moment.
Gill Burns, MBE, thank you.