In recent years the profile of Women’s rugby has grown enormously through extra financial investment and establishing major international tournaments such as the World Rugby Women’s World Series and women’s rugby 7s being included in the 2016 Olympics, in addition to the Women’s Rugby World Cup which began in 1991. England’s Red Roses have just completed a ninth 6 Nations Grand Slam after thrashing Scotland 80-0, and last weekend enjoyed a record crowd of over 10,000 watching them beat Italy in Exeter, which was the highest attendance for a standalone England women’s game outside a World Cup. It would appear that women’s rugby is leading the charge in women’s sport.
Rowena Burnfield is an unusual woman. A rare character. Someone who, on the face of it, is a conundrum but on closer observation is entirely straight-forward.
Here is a 27-year-old woman who is an organic dairy farmer by day but also captains Richmond Rugby Football Women’s XV – someone who is aiming to play in the Rugby Women’s World Cup but who is never happier than with her calves – someone who is utterly at home in front of crowds of sports fans but started life as a very shy, young girl.
In fact, it was those early years that led her mother to make sure Rowena and her two sisters – she is one of triplets – took full advantage of the outdoor activities available to them around their family farm at Stockbridge, near Andover in Hampshire.
Although Rowena joined her local club at 17, her ambition propelled her to Richmond which has one of the strongest women’s sides in UK Rugby. Rowena may be a Red Rose but she started to bloom on the turf in Richmond, where the women share strength and conditioning sessions with the club’s Championship men.
“Mum was very keen on us getting out of the house. My sisters and I would be out all day and she would ring a bell to get us in at meal-times. We were never indoors. It was a great childhood and I know I was very, very lucky,” said Rowena.
“I played club rugby and then went to Richmond where Emma Crocker and Becky Essex – both RFC legends – spurred me on. I was still very shy. I don’t think I actually talked to anyone for about five years but gradually, thanks to those two, I found my feet. Now I love it.”
A strong sense of family values, a big fan of her local pub and a fondness for iconic black and white films make Rowena sounds like sound like a figure from an era lost-past. She may even describe herself as “old-fashioned” but the second row is in many senses a modern day woman with impeccable environmental credentials who is clearly a high profile figure on the Championship side.
Rowena may hark from Hampshire but has taken Richmond to her heart and regards it as much like home as the county town where she grew up.
“Richmond is so like Winchester where I wander round the cobbled lanes. I love to get lost in Richmond on Saturday morning and walk in the Park or along the towpath. It is great to be out in the green spaces.
“The club is really special. There is always someone to talk to. It has a great vibe and I am hugely fortunate to captain this side.”
It has been a tough road for Rowena. But she is the kind of person who sees the advantage in everything she does. Her work is physically demanding. She is supported by three herdsmen and her auntie. Together they milk two herds of 120 cows twice a day. On top of that she trains four times a week and plays every Saturday during the season.
Getting up before dawn is the norm and working six days a week not unusual. Friday nights are fire-walled as family time when Rowena and her triplet sisters – one a soldier and the other a three-day event rider – meet up at the local pub. A fourth sister is a fashion stylist in London and the “townie” of the family. Ironically, she is lactose intolerant.
The Burnfield family is one with solid values. It is heartening to hear Rowena talk about her mother as a role model and of the close bond with her sisters. When she stopped playing rugby for two years due to injury. They were all there to offer moral support. Rowena was badly concussed in 2016 and symptomatic for nearly a year. She returned to the game in 2018 and then got the call to attend the England camp and got selected in November.
“I am really pleased to be in the squad. There is no bigger honour than to play for your country. I aim to be in New Zealand for 2021. Everyone in the squad hopes to play at the highest level. We are training hard all the time and I want to maintain focus and discipline.”
Strangely, although the demands of being a diary farmer seem diametrically opposed to the gruelling training required for world championship fitness, the skills are directly transferrable. Both jobs require a big degree of physicality and responsibility – particularly for the captain.
“My work as a diary farmer means that day-in, day-out the animals come first. My responsibility it always about the animals. What is best for them. That’s like leading a team. It is never about me – but always about what is best for the team. The organisation and pressures of both jobs are very similar. The jobs might look very different but structuring the agenda for both is very similar.”
Sport offers young women some great role models but none of them are more impressive than Rowena Burnfield.