A new book from a former England captain and the first ever official All Blacks Photographer, shines a light on some of the most important and pioneering women in rugby.
Paula George and her wife Jo Caird have together penned a superb collection of 52 stories which chart the history of women's rugby from the mid 1980s to today.
A beautiful hardcover book, Our GameMakers, was inspired by the death of Kathy Flores, the former captain and coach of the USA team, who passed away in 2021 and whose sad departure, sparked a conversation about the many pioneering women whose stories were often untold.
Caird explains: “It was during the pandemic when Kathy passed away, and Georgie was on a WhatsApp group with lots of former players who were sharing stories about how amazing she was. She started to tell me about what a huge influence Kathy had been on her, including as one of the first African American players she had ever seen playing at that level.
“When I listened to all of this, I thought – I don’t even know who she is and I’ve been around women’s rugby for well over 20 years. The more the stories were told, the more I wanted to help to save some of these for future generations, so they appreciate and can be inspired by these women.”
We decided to start from around the WIVERN tour in the 1980s and to tell the story through to the modern era. There are so many people we couldn’t put in!”
“We tried to tell new stories within each one too. Someone like Farah Palmer, everyone knows how many World Cups she won, but in her story we wanted to talk about how the Black Ferns name and haka came about. There are lots of stories in there that are not common knowledge.”
Caird and George, who for years worked behind the scenes with the All Blacks on a range of roles from photography to video production, credit Mastercard with valuable support as partners in the process, who backed the project financially and supported launches in New Zealand and London.
For George, who had been such an outstanding captain for England, coming home for the launch was a special moment.
“I had been away quite a long time so it was special to step back into it. I was there for the first weekend of the PWR launch so to see that standard was incredible and to hear the buzz about everything. I met people I hadn’t seen for 20 years.”
“Much has changed there of course but some of the battles the players are involved with are still the same. I was talking to some players about body image which seems to still be an issue. We have these amazing athletes who have gone to the next level, and they have powerful beautiful bodies because they put so much work in and they still get hassle because they don’t fit a nonsense idea of what societal norms are.”
George has had limited involved in the women’s game since retiring, but coaches her sons’ team, which has girls on it, at under 12 level, with one very famous assistant coach backing her up.
“I have coached every year since I’ve been here, in one sport or another, whatever the kids were in I put my hand up and helped. One day one of the Dads wandered over and it happened to be Josh Kronfeld so he’s now my assistant! Initially when we started coaching together, everyone would go to him and he’d point at me and say ‘she’s the head coach go to her’. It’s quite male dominated here in coaching but it’s been great for me. Coaching at that age is all about fun for us and we have a lovely group of kids and parents.”
George’s story is in the book, but it is worth retelling.
She won five caps for Wales before leaving, disillusioned at the setup and support for the women’s game there.
Moving to Wasps, her potential was spotted by England’s coaches and soon she was playing in white, before being named captain winning 75 caps leading the team for 30 Tests in charge,. She was, in her prime, the face of women's rugby.
“The move to play for England, wasn’t that well received at the time by some of the Welsh players which I understand!” she recalls.
“My first game for England was actually against Wales in Bridgend, near where I’d grown up, and I realised after the match that some of our forwards had decided that I wouldn’t get stuck at the bottom of a ruck just in case!
“Every time I went into contact, I was yanked back on my feet and shoved back to the backline by my own players! It was only after I realised they were trying to make sure no one laid a finger on me!”
Publishing a book is hard work, promoting and selling books just as tough, but George and Caird are a tough couple, coming through a gruelling period recently where George was diagnosed with cancer and had a huge tumour removed from her stomach.
“Being ill like that makes you reflect. I was really quite sick. When I got my diagnosis, they told me that just one in five women survive it and that within five years four of those woman are usually dead.
“However, they also said because I was fit and healthy I had a really good chance. They told me to have the surgery and recover so we did that, and Jo was amazing.
“I used all the skills I had learned from sport. What do I need to do today to be better? Some days, that was just get up and have a shower and that was a win. ‘What is under my control?’ Is a real athlete mindset and that helped me. It took me four years to get back anywhere near to where I was, and I thought perhaps I wouldn’t.
“I am not the same as I was before, I think I am better. I am a better person. I am kinder, I am more compassionate and I enjoy life to the max. I am grateful every day to be here, to live in an amazing country with amazing kids and an amazing wife. I love an fantastic sport which I can follow around the world.
“When you come through something like that, you look for the good and it is a very different way of living than before. I give thanks every day and when people complain about something – I do say what’s the alternative mate!”
For George, putting the book together means that she has played another huge part in the history of women’s rugby and with Caird’s work and support, they have created a stunning piece of work.
“These are women who were told they shouldn’t do it but they did it anyway. All in slightly different ways and at slightly different times. It was a privilege to tell their story.”
Our GameMakers is available at https://www.ourgamemakers.com/store . Access a 10% discount by using the code QUEENS10 at checkout.