Of the four greats who stepped into the World Rugby Hall of Fame presented by Tudor last week for their induction ceremony, none stood taller or clutched their commemorative watch more proudly than Liza Burgess, inductee number 142.
Burgess, who was inducted in 2018 alongside Stephen Larkham, Ronan O’Gara, Pierre Villepreux and Bryan Williams, has enjoyed quite a journey to the ceremony in Rugby.
Denied access to the sport she loved when growing up, the future Wales captain was only given the opportunity she craved after moving to England to attend Loughborough University in 1983.
“It was incredible. Growing up in Wales, always watching the game, the big occasion, everyone there, and I was thinking ‘oh, it would be amazing if we could play this’,” she explained.
“But no, unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity then. But then when I went to Loughborough, I heard that women could play so I was like ‘I’m gonna play rugby’.
“I enjoyed all other sports like canoeing and hockey but to have a chance to actually run with the ball was phenomenal. I loved it from the start. The very first time I picked the ball up, that was it.”
A different game
Burgess has certainly made up for lost time since. She played for Great Britain before captaining her country in their first ever match, against England in 1987, an honour she would enjoy a further 61 times during a 93-cap international career.
At club level, Burgess was a founding member of Saracens Women in 1989, and helped the north London club secure an historic treble four years later. Once retired she moved seamlessly into coaching, and was part of the Welsh women’s backroom team, while also coaching their under-20 counterparts, before landing her current job at Gloucester-Hartpury.
In those 31 years since Burgess first led out Wales against England the women’s game has enjoyed rapid growth in both popularity and standing.
“It’s quite unrecognisable,” Burgess admitted. “Back then we kind of all met in the morning, you had to pay for all of your kit and your travel and all that, but you didn’t think anything of it. You just did it because we didn’t expect anything, we just wanted to play.
“We had a couple of training sessions on Sophia Gardens (before playing England at Pontypool Park in 1987), picking up the dog poo first before we could train. It was just a great occasion really.
“To see where it is now, the level of professionalism, I mean you trained the best way you could (but) you had to research for guidance on training, things like that.
"The sky's the limit ... It’s going to keep improving, keep growing in popularity and the more youngsters we can get participating in the game, the more exciting women’s rugby will be."
“Now there’s so much more, you’ve got the psychologists, you’ve got the analysts, the physiotherapists, the coaches, it’s just fantastic how it’s progressed, and so very, very different to back then.”
Father figure of women's rugby
Given her role in the development of the women’s game, the tag of pioneer is one Burgess accepts – albeit reluctantly – alongside the likes of Carol Isherwood, Nicky Ponsford and Anna Richards.
“I suppose we were, (but) I just see myself as someone who loved the game and wanted to play as much of it as I could,” she said. “You did fight to play.
“I was lucky enough to be one of the founder members at Saracens and we had to go to the local court because there was a by-law that said whistles weren’t allowed to be played on Sundays. So we had to have that overturned!
“So, it’s things like that. You just pushed on through because you wanted to play.”
That desire to play was first stoked by Jim Greenwood, who coached Burgess at Loughborough and for Great Britain. It was the late coach who she immediately thought of when stepping forward to join him in the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
“Oh, he was monumental,” Burgess said of her mentor. “Jim was, for me, the father figure of women’s rugby in this country.
“He was the first coach of Great Britain, but on a personal level he was just very forward-thinking with regards to women’s rugby and he inspired you to want to play and be the best player that you could.
“For me, he was my biggest hero and to be alongside him in the Hall of Fame is incredible.”
Despite taking her place among the pantheon of rugby greats, Burgess is far from finished with the sport that has shaped her adult life.
Working alongside Susie Appleby, LJ Adams and Oliver Wilson at Gloucester-Hartpury has ignited her ambition to become a head coach at club level. To that end, Burgess has taken a career break from teaching and is currently enrolled in a career development course to aid her tactical ambitions.
“At the moment I’m just enjoying the moment,” she said. “Just taking my time to concentrate on my coaching now. Ideally one day I’d like to be a head coach of a side and see where I can go with that. So, yeah all to play for.”
Her work in the south-west of England has also brought Burgess into contact with the next generation of women’s talent.
The sky's the limit
The Tyrrells Premier 15s club’s centre of excellence caters for girls between the ages of 16 and 18, offering scholarships to Hartpury College so players can continue their studies while working towards a senior career.
It is a pathway that has already produced two Women’s Rugby World Cup winners in England's Alex Matthews and Ceri Large, and one that would have seemed beyond Burgess’ wildest dreams when she began life at Loughborough 35 years ago.
“They can study to get their qualifications and it also gives them that little insight into what a professional attitude towards sport is, and what they need to do to be the best that they can,” Burgess said.
“That discipline comes into it from that young age, and they get looked after incredibly well, so it’s great.”
It should not be surprising to learn that having played such an important role in the growth of women’s rugby, Burgess is excited for the game’s future prospects.
“The sky’s the limit,” she said. “Just look at what’s happened now with the level of professionalism, the sevens circuit, the World Cup, the success from that.
“It’s going to keep improving, keep growing in popularity and the more youngsters we can get participating in the game, the more exciting women’s rugby will be.”