As the female coach of a men’s rugby team Tamara Taylor is used to breaking down boundaries, and her attention is currently focused on helping England win their first Women’s Rugby World Cup title in two decades.
This afternoon’s semi-final in Paris sees the Darlington Mowden Sharks lock lining up against Ireland, the winner meeting either France or Canada in Sunday’s final.
As part of the England squad beaten in the last two World Cup finals, the Dunston resident knows how it feels to go close to global domination, and believes this could be the year England take the next step.
That cause has been helped considerably by the shock elimination of New Zealand during the group stages, the Black Ferns having won the previous four World Cups, beating England in the last three finals.
Their conquerors, Ireland, lie in wait today for Taylor, whose jaw was among those hitting the floor when Niamh Green’s penalty saw the Irish recording their first ever test win over the game’s most dominant force last week.
“I was astonished, to be honest, that New Zealand had been knocked out,” said Taylor, 32, who works as the Rugby Football Union’s community coach for South Durham as well as coaching the men’s team at Jarrovians RFC.
“That is not something you ever think you will see, read or hear about, but we were watching it unfold on the big screen in our team hotel.
“It has sent shock waves through the entire tournament. I don’t think New Zealand were playing the best rugby we have ever seen from them, but they are not number one in the world for nothing.
“I have mixed feelings, really, because I always want the northern hemisphere teams to beat the south when they play them. But on the flip side it means we are meeting an Ireland side who are playing some outstanding rugby, and that will be an enormous challenge for us.”
North East representation in the England Women’s side has been strong for some time now, South Shields native Katy McLean captaining the squad for the World Cup with Newcastle-born back-rower Sarah Hunter as her vice-captain.
McLean’s shock omission for the final group game against Canada saw Hunter stepping up to skipper the side – a 13-13 draw enough to see the English through.
“We have got better as a group as the tournament has progressed, although certain things from the Canada game need a bit of attention going into the semi-final,” said Taylor, England having defeated Samoa and Spain in their previous group outings.
“Our plan, as with every team, was to get out of the group, and we are two games away now from fulfilling the dream of winning the World Cup.
“We have talked about it for a long, long time, and now it is about getting out there and performing. We have had the best preparation ever, and it is in our own hands now to take every opportunity that we get.”
On Ireland, she added: “They have massively improved over the last couple of years.
“I was involved in the Six Nations two years ago when they beat us, and they were really physical across the board in both the forwards and backs. That is something they have built on even more, but we beat them in the last Six Nations and there has been a bit of to-and-fro between us in terms of results.
“That is great for the sport, and you want a semi-final that is potentially going to be really close.”
Indicative of the heightened media profile of this year’s tournament is the fact today’s semi-final will be shown live on Sky Sports at 5pm, Taylor saying: “This is my third World Cup, and it is definitely becoming a bigger event.
“The first one in Canada was quiet in terms of attention and awareness, but France have done an excellent job in promoting this tournament.
“There are loads of spectators at the matches, they are all on French TV and lots of supporters back home are seeing the games on Sky as well as reading about them in the papers.
“It is being talked about, and that is what you want when you are an aspiring sports team trying to get into the public eye.”
Now an adopted Geordie after studying at Newcastle University almost a decade ago, Taylor has taken the step of coaching the men’s team at Durham and Northumberland Three outfit, Jarrovians.
She said: “Jarrovians has been great, and I have really enjoyed it.
“It was a challenge for both of us because they had not had a coach at all for the past couple of seasons – and certainly not a female coach.
“Everyone was a bit wide-eyed about the whole situation when it first started, but the feedback I have had has been really good.
“Maybe I have brought a bit of a feminine touch to the club, I don’t know, but they are a great group of lads and they have had a good pre-season with some guest coaches while I have been away.
“The feeling in the camp is really positive, and hopefully this will be a good season for us.”