By Emily Ryall
Liza Burgess (known to most as Bird), one of the pioneers of the womens game, reflects upon her illustrious playing career as she embarks on her new appointment as assistant coach for Wales.
One of first things to strike you about Liza is her interminable energy.
As head of PE at The Castle School in Thornbury, Gloucestershire, she is used to long days that involve rushing from her teaching and management duties, to after school matches, to coaching club sessions. Even the time allocated to this interview is limited as she explains to me that shes promised a mother shell take her son to rugby training that evening. But having such a busy schedule is something that she is used to after doing it for almost thirty years.
Remarkably her first taste of rugby came in 1983 at Loughborough University where she was an undergraduate.
I always wanted to play rugby but wasnt allowed to play at school, but there was a great set-up at Loughborough. One of the lads who I was friends with, who helped coach said Come on Bird, youll love it and after one session I was hooked.
She acknowledges that with womens rugby in its infancy many people didnt take it seriously, but for Liza, those that gave up their time to coach made a real impression. She cites Jim Greenwood in particular for being a real inspiration and driving her forward to an international career which saw her win of 87 caps for Wales and six caps for Great Britain.
Lizas international debut came in 1986 when she played for Great Britain against Holland at Richmond. This was quickly followed by an away match against France who were a more established side with a good set-up and who won - at the return fixture at Harlequins, Great Britain turned over the result.
It was a massive occasion. Wed had a couple of years under Jim Greenwood by then and he was really inspirational.
A further highlight of her international career came when she played at the Cardiff Arms Park, against England. To play at your national home ground is just incredible and it was an amazing experience.
After graduating from University, Liza returned to Wales.
It was the summer holidays and I couldnt get a job but I got a phone call from Cheryl Stennett who played for London Wasps and she said Bird, Ive got you a job in Dagenham, just get yourself to the interview.
Liza concedes that she didnt know where Dagenham was but went along and was offered the job.
I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, it was a massive state comprehensive school. So I left the sunny hillsides of Wales for inner-city London and there I stayed.
On moving to the capital she joined Wasps.
Rugby in the 1980s was in its early days and Liza recollects that matches were few and far between with only a handful of other teams around the country. It was after three years of travelling over an hour and a half, twice a week, to get to training at Wasps that she decided, along with several friends including Katie Ball and Janice Ross, to approach London Saracens to start a team. Although the Saracens committee were receptive, the women were expected to work in the kitchen and serve food for the mens sides for the first couple of years. But as Liza wryly remarks,
Gradually things changed and the epitome was when they waited on us at a Christmas dinner one year.
The mens support, and particularly that of the Chairman, helped to position the womens side as one of the top three in the country where they have remained since.
Indeed, it was under Lizas captaincy that Saracens first won the treble (the Premier league, National Cup and National 7s), the first time the feat had ever been achieved, which she cites as one of her best moments of her rugby career. Like many former Saracens players, Lizas affection and loyalty for the club is unrelenting and she asserts that the ten years she spent playing there was the best time of her life.
Nevertheless, in 2001 she decided to move nearer to her family in Wales and got a job in Bristol where she joined Clifton [later Bristol] rugby club. It was during this time, towards the end of her playing career, that she concentrated more on her coaching. She admits it was difficult for the first couple of years after retiring from rugby and she is always tempted by the occasional game but ultimately she knows that her body takes longer to recover and its time to stop. She also adds that with her teaching job and coaching commitments it is impossible to do both.
After nearly 30 years of rugby, Liza admits that her body has suffered from the impact. But she laughs off any suggestion that perhaps she should take it easy.
My body is falling apart but if you keep moving it and keep using it then it seems to work. When I stop, it stops. So my motto is to keep moving.
This brings her on to discuss the changes in the international set-up. She states there was no health care or assistance during matches when she began playing,
Someone might run on with a sponge and bucket of water but if you got injured you usually just carried on playing.
They also didnt get any nutritional or psychological support that international players receive today. Fortunately, she asserts that things have changed for the better in terms of athlete wellbeing.
That things have moved forward for international players is illustrated by Lizas stories of the struggle players endured to represent their country. She recalls the times that the Great Britain team stayed in youth hostels having to carry out cleaning duties prior to international matches.
Ill never forget the time my duty was to clean the toilets before we had to play France. Rob (Helen Clayton) and I were sitting on the steps cleaning our boots right after we had cleaned the toilets. Things like that are terrible when you look back on it, but at the time it wasnt a problem; you just got on and did it.
Although she still finds it frustrating that female players dont get the recognition that they deserve, she is very positive about the future. In particular she names the recent World Cup in England for having a huge effect on the medias representation of the sport. Perhaps surprisingly for a Welsh woman, she commiserates the fact that England failed to win, due to the additional publicity it would have given the sport. However, Liza has played her part in the raised awareness, particularly through one of the most famous international players, Maggie Alphonsi, as Liza was her PE teacher and encouraged Maggie to take up the sport - a recognition she was given recently at the SportscoachUK awards.
Since retiring from playing, Liza has taken up a salaried position with the Wales team as well as coaching club side Cross Keys and helping out at her former club, Bristol. Last year she worked on a temporary basis as forwards coach for Wales but has since been appointed assistant coach to work under the new Wales head coach, Kris De Scossa. Under this new set-up she hopes to see a good Wales performance in the coming 6 Nations championship.
We realise weve got a mountain to climb with regards to this 6 Nations because weve had relatively little time to prepare, however we can definitely improve on our position from last year. We were very disappointed with getting the wooden spoon having beaten England the year before and were desperate to improve on that this year.
She also suggests that the experience and opportunity that younger players gained from the World Cup was invaluable, particularly the opportunity to play against New Zealand who were a class apart from other teams. That, alongside the recently developed regional structure, has given Wales a better pathway from which to build their national team.
Having experienced first-hand both playing alongside Liza and receiving her coaching, Wales are fortunate enough to have the skills and leadership qualities of one of the indomitable personalities of the womens game. That fact is reflected in one of her proudest moments when she scored a try for Wales against England and was warmly congratulated by many of the England players immediately after touching down the ball. This is one of the many examples that give an indication of the high regard and esteem that she is held in amongst the rugby community.