The Her Movement Interview: Poppy and Bryony Cleall
Interviewed by Charlotte Simmons
Poppy Cleall made her England debut in the 2016 Six Nations, she featured in every match for England’s 2017 Grand Slam winning side and was a late call-up at the Women's Rugby World Cup squad that year. In 2018 Cleall started in all five games in the Six Nations and also featured in all five of the 2019 Women’s Six Nations, scoring four tries, as England went onto win a Grand Slam.
She plays at Saracens alongside twin sister, Bryony, who was awarded an EPS agreement at the same time Poppy earned a full-time England contract in January 2019. Bryony made her England debut against Ireland in the 2019 Women’s Six Nations
In February you won your ninth Grand Slam and regained the Women’s Six Nations title. How important are wins like that to growing the visibility and popularity of women’s Rugby?
Poppy: Big occasions such as winning the Grand Slam gets everyone behind us, ten and a half thousand people came out to watch us play Italy in the 6 Nations! If we can keep being successful, hopefully the crowd and support we get will be bigger because of that.
Bryony: It’s about raising the visibility of the sport. To win the 6 Nations at Twickenham, is ultimately the best outcome you can have for a National rugby team. We need to get people down to watch us and see we are tough, athletic and skilful. We need to think about what can we do to promote the sport even more.
England were the only full-time professional team in the 6 Nations. How do you think going full time has changed the game in terms of both support and participation? Do girls now see ‘professional rugby player;’ as a viable career and a reason to start playing?
Poppy: Everyone my age (26) had to ask themselves when they first turned 18 if they could carry on playing rugby as a hobby and still applying themselves to the career they want. When we were choosing our universities we had to think about what was more important, a good academic or rugby reputation?
I am sure that a lot of girls would stop playing rugby when they went to university because they were focusing on their studies rather than attempting to have a career in rugby.
Now there is an opportunity to become a professional female rugby player, it will definitely stop lot of girls giving up early on when they’ve got a talent.
We may have been the only full time professional team in the 6 Nations, but the more teams out there that are professional, the stronger the competitions are going to get, and the more chance of girls staying in rugby from a young age.
Bryony: When we talk about these professional contracts, hopefully it’s just the beginning. People ask, ‘why were England so good at 6 Nations’ – It’s because they went professional in January. Half of it is the domestic league we have and that has raised our standard so much and this professional contract is only going to raise it more.
Rugby, as a sport, suffers from a huge amount of stereotyping; how do we challenge this to make the game more accessible for women and girls to try? Especially when fear of being judged is one of the main barriers to entry to exercise.
Bryony: Low confidence and body image is a huge barrier for girls when it comes to participation. They are worried about the stereotypes and perceptions that come with playing rugby. Campaigns like The Girl Can really helps to boost confidences as girls can see women of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds playing the sport.
Rugby has got that huge stereotype attached to it. Even as national champions people say ridiculous comments to us like, ‘how can you still have kids when you get tackled?’ and ‘Does it not hurt you breasts’.
They don’t know enough about our sport or even just women as athletes. We need to create more role models to inspire more girls to play the sport. Showing female rugby players being successful and making careers out of their sport so girls can be confident in it as a career choice for themselves.
The reason these sports are so gender specific is because as children grow up they are influenced by what they are exposed to. Young girls would watch their brothers, and boy mates play when they couldn’t, but now they can actually access those sports. The problem, in my experience, is the parents that still don’t see it as a sport that their daughter should be playing. With the surge in women’s sports, girls are getting more and more used to seeing female sports players in the news and in real life. The more they see, the more they will want to try.
What is it you love about rugby?
Poppy: I love how inclusive rugby is. No matter how you look, however you turn up, if you have played before or not, you are part of the team from day one.
Bryony: Clubs are so inclusive and welcoming, embracing every different quality different people can bring.
For example, we aren’t the quickest players, but someone else on our team is. There are so many different qualities that we all have and we all bring, so when that little 12 year old girl who has found a love in school for rugby goes to her local club, she will be welcome no matter her skill set because everyone has value. That’s where her confidence is going to come from.
Perhaps the most powerful thing about sport is the sense of belonging it creates in those who play and follow it. How has sport helped you build relationships on and off the pitch?
Poppy: Rugby has introduced us to people we might not have met in out day to day life, all bought together though a common love of the game. I find we always want the same things, always striving to be the best, not just for ourselves but for each other.
In a team you form such a great bond, when you do have your success it’s always a little bit better because you can see how someone else has worked so hard. When you have your low moments, they are a little bit less low because you have other people in that situation, helping you through.
Bryony: With Rugby, nothing can create a bond quite like putting your body on the line for each other and exhausting yourself day in day out to reach your common goal. Rugby has provided us with endless amount of friends; people who you have been at the lowest hand highest points with – it’s crazy how sport can create such strong connections.