England captain sacrifices all for World Cup glory bid
Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 Venue: Surrey Sports Park, Guildford (group stages and play-off matches) and Twickenham Stoop (semis and final) Dates: Fri 20 August - Sun 5 September Coverage: Watch main matches live on Sky Sports, Highlights of knock-out stages on BBC Sport (UK users only)
By Aimee Lewis
In May, Catherine Spencer walked through the doors of the Gloucester leisure centre where she had spent the last four years of her working life for the last time.
The England Women's rugby captain decided the summer months would be best spent dedicating herself to her sport and so, sacrificing the security of a monthly wage, she resigned from her job as an office manager to pursue her ultimate goal of winning the Women's World Cup.
"It was not really like leaving a job after four years, it was 'right, I'm going to do my other job'," the 31-year-old philosophy graduate told BBC Sport.
"World Cups don't come around very often and I just made a decision at the end of May that this was my chance.
"I don't think I'll get another World Cup and having experienced the loss in 2006 [England were beaten 25-17 by New Zealand in the final], I just want to give everything I possibly can to help us win this tournament."
We play with a professional outlook. We're just not paid
Spencer's steely determination has already made her one of England's most successful captains or, as one newspaper put it, 'probably the most successful sportsperson that you've never heard of'.
That could change if she lifts the World Cup aloft on Sunday 5 September at the Twickenham Stoop, having already collected five Six Nations titles - including four Grand Slams - in the past five years.
Not that the imposing number eight craves recognition. Talk of the awards and honours that invariably follow World Cup triumphs (England Women's cricket captain Charlotte Edwards received an MBE following her team's triumph in 2009) is quickly quashed.
"We've not thought beyond the World Cup," insists the 5ft 10in, 14-stone Bristol forward. "Our main aim is to win it and we're not thinking of what will happen after that."
Spencer in peak condition for World Cup
The Cardiff University graduate will receive some funding for loss of earnings while representing her country at the two-week tournament, which kicks off on 20 August.
But she has become accustomed to "being skint" and admits that weekend visits to her supportive parents, Nigel and Jane, to "stock up on food" have helped.
The unassuming captain, glowingly described by head coach Gary Street as a "great leader", is not the only member of the squad who has had to make financial sacrifices ahead of the World Cup.
Hooker Amy Garnett, a policewoman, has taken three months' unpaid leave, while scrum-half Amy Turner, a community support officer, decided to take a year-long unpaid sabbatical to concentrate on the season ahead.
Not that the players begrudge the reduction in income, or missing various birthdays and wedding celebrations. For them, it is merely what needs to be done to become the best in the world.
"Other countries we play say, 'you're all professionals', but we're not, even though I like the idea that people think we are. We play with a professional outlook. We're just not paid," says Spencer, capped 54 times and England captain since 2007.
Spencer's summer has been spent in various training camps "working on strength and speed", none more demanding than a three-day stint at the Army's training base near the Brecon Beacons mountains in South Wales.
England women get ready for battle
Spencer believes the mental and physical challenges of being on patrol and tackling assault courses while deprived of sleep will serve the squad well.
"It was the first time we'd been camping out under the stars and walking around in pitch-black darkness," she recalls.
"We were all completely out of our comfort zones and it was great to see how the girls reacted. It was pretty tough out there.
"We laughed our way through it, which is what you've got to do. It's pretty tough, taking turns to keep watch for an hour at time with just one other person on your team, but we're a tough bunch of girls and whatever anyone tells us to do, we'll do."
Away from the training and preparation, she has tried to "think about something else other than rugby" by relaxing on a beach, visiting friends and playing with her godchildren.
"Nothing too strenuous", stresses the Kent-born forward, emphasising the need to conserve energy ahead of the biggest competition of her career.
The reigning Six Nations champions conceded a mere 15 points on their way to this year's Grand Slam and go to the World Cup ranked second in the world, behind New Zealand, who have won the last three global titles.
But with home advantage and November's impressive victory at Twickenham, their first over the Black Ferns for eight years, hopes are high of reversing the result of the 2006 final.
England are expected to progress relatively comfortably from a group also featuring Ireland, USA and Kazakhstan, and it would be a major shock if they were not lining up at The Stoop to sing the national anthem on 5 September.
Spencer scored the only try of the game against New Zealand in November
"It is our home World Cup, there is pressure on us," acknowledges Spencer, who scored the game's solitary try in that famous win over New Zealand last November, the first time the girls had been allowed to play at HQ since 2006.
"We've had a great season and we are going into the tournament as one of the favourites but that's the pressure we put on ourselves as well.
"We're used to pressure. Every year we go into the Six Nations we're expected to do well and we seem to thrive on it. Hopefully, it won't be any different at this World Cup and once again we'll thrive on that pressure and relish that home support we'll hopefully have."
In addition, broadcasters from North America, Europe, Oceania, the Middle East and Africa will also show live matches in their territories, reflecting the growing popularity of a sport which, until the late 20th century, was banned.
Recognition may have taken a while, but Spencer - bemused at being recognised on a Kent park-and-ride bus recently - senses a shift in attitudes.
"The profile has definitely been raised and I've certainly noticed it, possibly as captain more, but other players have noticed it too," she added.
"It's a great game we're playing, it's a great sport and it would be brilliant to get as many people watching the game as possible, be it coming to the matches or watching it on TV. It's just a fantastic opportunity to see the sport."
Hoisting the World Cup aloft next month would help ensure that the women's game features more prominently in the country's sporting consciousness.
It might also result in a few more second glances on bus journeys for Spencer, and maybe the odd job offer.
"It would be a real shame if 'Spence' is a World Cup-winning captain and is unemployed," said England head coach Gary Street. "You'd hope someone would have the good sense somewhere to take her on because she's a fantastic individual."
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