As the thunderous collisions of human wildebeest stampeded across the screen from New Zealand, a wild heresy crossed my mind. As Lion and All Black converged, in momentous tangles of gristle, as my tea on the pub table spilled in its saucer from the reverberations of twelve thousand miles away, as the woman next to me paused mid-mouthful of big breakfast to stare at the TV in unearthly wonder, as battered, bandaged mountains of male indomitability fought to a mutually-respecting draw – I did for one minute consider breaking a lifetime of certainty that sportswomen could produce scenes such as these. Apostasy – right there.
Maybe, I thought, this is as good as sport gets. It’s a rugby match, yes. Women can do that. They’re about to in the much-anticipated World Cup where England’s women will be defending their title. But can they go as hard, fast, strongly as this, viscerally tearing into one another until you can almost hear crunch of bone-on-bone tackles? No, basically. No.
A lifetime of arguing can come down to this point. I was born into an era when women’s sport, except in very few cases, was deemed inferior. I now live in an era where women’s sport is different, and deemed equally compelling, given the right breaks of funding, management and coverage. The question is: which one do I really believe in?
My tea had gone cold. Was I outing myself here as a sexist betrayer of all the values that women’s sport has fought a long, hard, on-going battle to win?
There was a moment in the Lions game when the two captains stood side by side in communication with the umpire. Kieran Read and Sam Warburton – for the purposes of the moment locked in mortal combat – and as they parted again, they nearly smiled, lightly touching one another on the back. A fleeting non-event – and yet it seemed to matter a very great deal.
Superseding size, bicep, testosterone, tradition, earnings, sex and power in sport … is spirit. And that is a gender-neutral ingredient.
The extraordinary effect that we feel when one of us rises not just off the couch but to the very summit of human endeavor, is what we primarily celebrate in sport. The Lions, in most camps, hadn’t been given a prayer after losing the first of three Tests at Eden Park. The All Blacks, world champions, arguably the greatest team in any sport on Earth, would steamroller the necessarily patchwork combination of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales however hard they tried. And however many pints their fans could heroically drink in antipodean bars.
It didn’t happen because somehow the Lions coalesced into a unit that would not be beaten. That determination went beyond training, finances, muscle. It was born of pure unquenchable spirit. Where have we seen that before? In Jess Ennis in 2012 when a lesser athlete would have bowed under the almost intolerable pressure of ‘Face of the London Games’ to win gold in the heptathlon; in Chrissie Wellington, the definition of invincibility in the winning of her four Ironman titles; in the GB hockey team who held the nation in no less a thrall that night in Rio than the Lions did at the weekend.
What happened to me was simple. I was spellbound by sport. (And it can’t have been due to chemical alteration. The pub wasn’t serving alcohol until 10am.) Being spellbound by sport is also a gender-free zone, if you discount the interfering twang of phwoar when confronted by members of the opposite (or same) sex (orientation-depending) in their visibly sculpted prime.
And so to this summer of women’s sport. The England women’s football team head to the European Championship in the Netherlands at the end of this month, when the Lionesses have a good chance to match the Lions’ roar.
The Rugby World Cup in Ireland will feature furious maelstroms of brawn of its own, and the Black Ferns, the New Zealand women’s rugby team, will perform the haka – one of the greatest integral, spine-tingling sights in modern sport.
There will be women reaching out towards ever greater achievements up mountains, down rivers, on pitches, alone at the crease, together in arms, silent, screaming, spiritually bound for one final push towards victory.
I’m back from the dark side.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles