|Premier 15s final: Saracens v Harlequins|
|Venue: Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton Date: Saturday, 27 April Kick-off: 17:45 BST|
|Coverage: Follow radio and live text commentary on the BBC Sport website.|
World Cup winner Rachael Burford seeks a first Premier 15s title on Saturday, but rugby has already given her much more than trophies.
As a child, the England and Harlequins centre refused to read out loud at school because she was embarrassed at her ability.
Now, Burford gives speeches on leadership, champions women’s rugby on the world stage and encourages young girls to take up the sport through her Burford Academy.
“I stand up and do public speaking and look back at the girl in school who wouldn’t read out loud because she couldn’t read very well so she was sent out of the class,” said the 32-year-old, who will captain Harlequins against Saracens on Saturday in the final of the Premier 15s – the top tier of English women’s rugby.
“It was really embarrassing and I’d go all defensive and that’s why I’d get kicked out. Now I stand here with two GCSEs, but I own my own business and do my own accounts.
“I couldn’t do any maths at school but now I can because of what rugby’s taught me – resilience, hard work and determination.”
Burford, who made her debut for England aged 19, has come a long way since she took up rugby at six years old and is now one of the leading figures in the women’s game having won the World Cup in 2014.
Shortly after, she became the first female professional player on the Rugby Players’ Association players’ board and sits on World Rugby’s Women’s Advisory and Rugby Committees.
Now, when Burford speaks to young people about her experiences, she is always honest about her past academic struggles.
“I know that there will be kids in that room who will be in the same situation,” she added. “They struggle academically but they’ve got something they’re really good at.”
How Quins are changing the game
As someone who wants to inspire the next generation of girls, Burford is at the perfect club.
Harlequins are leading the way in terms of integration in the women’s league. There are pictures of both men’s and women’s players around The Stoop, the club’s ground, and both sides use the same training base.
The fans are getting behind the team too. At 12,290, Quins’ total attendance for the regular season dwarfed that of the other Premier 15s clubs – the next highest was Bristol Bears on 3,868.
In fact, the south-west London side got more than Bristol’s total attendance at a single game for their showpiece match, called The Game Changer.
They set a new attendance record for a UK women’s club game when 4,837 watched them defeat Gloucester Hartpury at the end of March, with more than 20,000 fans watching the live stream.
And Harlequins’ investment in the women’s game has not gone unnoticed with English rugby’s governing body.
“The way Quins have supported their women’s team has been fantastic,” said Nicky Ponsford, Head of Women’s Performance at the Rugby Football Union.
“They are setting the standards in showing the things we need to put in place to push the game to where we want to see it.
“They’re probably a step ahead of where we are at the moment, maybe two steps ahead.”
Support on and off the field
Quins players also have access to a full-time physio, analyst and coaching team as well as a programme helping them with their off-field career development.
This is something Burford has got involved with, because running her own business and sitting on two World Rugby committees is just not enough.
“I’ve had work experience opportunities with DHL,” added Burford, who was given a full-time England contract in January. “I went to meetings, spoke to big corporate groups, they went through different roles with me to see where I would fit.
“In the summer I’m going to do more to look at different career options I can use later down the line.”
The final push
The question remains though, will all these changes help Harlequins take the title from Saracens?
Sarries won 24-20 when the two sides played in last year’s final and just three points separated them both times the teams met in the regular season.
With six players from each team on full-time England contracts it promises to be a thrilling finale, but Burford believes the support from the club and its fans will give them the extra push they need.
“Because the club is investing so much, players want to invest,” she said. “It’s not token, it’s genuine.
“With a club that’s given so much and is trying to drive women’s rugby, we want to be able to give that back to them.”