Zoe Harrison shares the reality of rugby training as a woman

womens rugby world cup zoe harrison
Zoe Harrison on training in the Red Roses

According to data from Futures Sport & Entertainment, women's sport had a record-breaking broadcast reach in 2023, with 46.7m people tuning in to watch women’s sport on TV – almost 1m more than the previous high in 2019.

Following the Women's Euro 2022 final (when football finally came home!), and England's match against Germany became the most-watched women's game ever in the UK, we had the FIFA World Cup 2023, the Women's Super League, and the rugby Women's Six Nations.

At the Women's Six Nations, England's Red Roses retained their winning title for a fifth time, and they're on track to make history with their six consecutive tournament win this year.

Ahead of the match against Ireland this Saturday 20th April 2024, we reflect on when we previously caught up with the team's fly-half Zoe Harrison, 26. Here’s what it’s really like to play rugby as a woman, and how she prepares for competitions.

'My mum was a horse rider and my dad and brother played rugby, so I’ve been around sport all my life. As a young child, I’d do anything to be like my brother, so when he started playing rugby, we'd play together in the park. I was only five. Even now, when people ask me why I kick a certain way, my answer is always, ‘It’s what my brother did’. He was smacking the ball 20m at the age of six, so I was doing the same.

In my school days, I’d play football or rugby seven days a week. But I always enjoyed rugby more. Aged 13, I joined a girl’s rugby team before starting the AASE Girls Rugby Programme (an Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence) at 16.

Training was intense; I’d have rugby training twice a day, alongside two-three gym sessions per week – usually weightlifting. But this was, and remains, the only schedule I stick to (I'm too superstitious to follow a routine - because what if it was a match day in the World Cup and I couldn't follow it?) It was during these years that I learnt about the importance of sleep and good nutrition for recovery, too - meaning had to stop the late night Domino’s and staying up until 1am.

From there, I joined Saracens Women, based in north London. Now a ‘senior player’, the programme was even more intense. I play fly-half position, which means it’s my job to lead my teammates around the pitch.

My first senior game was daunting. I was 18, telling players as old as 35 what to do, and the opposing team had players much bigger than me running full pelt in my direction. Sure, I lifted weights, I was nowhere near their size. To this day, the hardest thing about rugby is the contact. I won’t shy away from it, but it’s hard to get yourself psyched up for someone of 105kg running straight at you. You’ve just got to do it.

Training is physically challenging – I train for six hours every day except Sunday, as part of the World Cup camp. That my team rely on me to tell them what to do means the position I play is particularly draining - and switching off is key. On rest days, I always see friends - if I were home alone, I'd just end up thinking about rugby.

Identifying the role that food plays in my performance has been useful, too. I used to suffer with stomach pain, but now I know the foods I'm intolerant too, I focus my diet around other foods. Breakfast is usually oat milk porridge, lunch might be chicken salad and dinner is usually chicken, veg, and potatoes or rice. I love a glass of good wine, too.

Women’s sport has been getting the recognition it deserves since the Lionesses competed in (and won!) the Euros and I know more people will be watching as a result. I want to inspire more women to get involved, and to create excitement for the 2025 World Cup tournament, when England will host. We’ve been put on a platform now, and it’s going to be massive.'

Zoe Harrison is an ambassador for Umbro. For more information visit umbro.co.uk/rugby or follow @Umbro_Rugby on Instagram.

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