If you want to learn more about the evolution of women’s rugby in the UK, speaking to Gill Burns is a good place to start.
The former England captain played in four Women’s Rugby World Cups, including the home soil win in 1994, and steered the Red Roses to Grand Slam glory in the first-ever version of the Women’s Six Nations Championship - the 1996 Five Nations.
Twenty-three years on from England’s first experience of the Championship, the state of women’s rugby is a far cry away from what it was in Burns’ days, the 2020 Red Roses squad being the first cohort to complete a year under full-time professional contracts, rather than playing to play for their country while wearing the men’s kits.
Travelling to France to play the Six Nations opener in the 18,000-capacity Stade du Hameau would have been a mere fantasy for Burns back in her day, but the former England captain wouldn’t have had things any different.
Reflecting on England's 1996 Five Nations success, Burns knows she led a side that allowed the current generation to thrive.
“I was privileged to play for England for 14 years and many of those games blend together, but that first game of the 1996 Five Nations really stands out,” said Burns. “It was the first time that people from outside the players’ circles, their families and friends, took an interest in the women’s game.
“We played on the Sunday just across from Welford Road, the day after Leicester Tigers had played.
“There was huge support on our touchline from Tigers fans and when we came off the field, I can remember a big group saying to me ‘That was the best game of rugby we saw this weekend’.
“We had positive feedback from genuine rugby fans who had perhaps never seen a women’s game before.
“It didn’t carry on like that and I can only dream what might have been back in my day if I’ve had the opportunity, but that was a huge step forward – that women’s rugby was entertaining and out there for people to see.”
Burns may have faced multiple struggles in her career, but the 55-year-old has never once let it get her down – not even when she was confronted with a sign that read ‘No women or dogs allowed’ above the bar of her lifelong club Firwood Waterloo.
Progress towards equality has taken great strides in recent years but if any current player were to experience anything similar, Burns has one simple message – let the rugby do the talking.
“I think all those moments back in the 90s were small steps in the right direction to help women’s rugby get where it is today,” added Burns.
“There will always be someone out there who wants to be a hater and make derogatory comments, but that shouldn’t get anybody down.
“It’s never going to go away, but what we can do is educate good people to see the positives in the game. Even if they don’t admit it, inside they will be changing their mindsets.
“I don’t like putting deadlines on when things will change, but if we keep on trying it will eventually whittle away. All I try and do is show people what we can do.”
As adverts for women’s rugby go, there is few better than an opening Six Nations clash between reigning Grand Slam champions England and France, who go to battle in what has largely been billed as the Championship title-decider in Pau on Sunday afternoon.
England have won four of the last four Le Crunch clashes, but if they want to be lifting the Six Nations trophy for a 16th time, Burns says they cannot afford to become complacent.
“It’s a fantastic Six Nations opener to look forward to,” she added. “France have always been France – on their day, they can beat anyone in the world but they’re too inconsistent.
“I still think England will have the edge because of their strength in depth but it really is the one England need to be the wariest of in the Championship. They have to be aware of how powerful France can be on their day.”