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Rugby pioneer tells graduating students to grab every opportunity “with both hands”


Women’s Rugby World Cup winner and trailblazer for the sport, Gill Burns MBE, has received the title Honorary Doctor of Science, on Tuesday 23rd July, from Edge Hill University.

Representing England between 1988 and 2002, including the World Cup winning side from 1994, Gill captained her country between 1994 and 1999 and played in four World Cups, winning 73 caps.

Gill was also amongst the first six women to be indicted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014, and the first woman to referee at Twickenham.

But her first visit to Edge Hill’s campus was in 1982, three years before she first donned a rugby kit, for Rag week, when she was training to be a PE teacher at Chester.

She played hockey on the grass pitches in front of the main building in Ormskirk, and tennis on old tarmac courts, and visited her best friend who was studying at Edge Hill. During her years training to be a teacher, Gill represented British Colleges at hockey, basketball, swimming and athletics.

“How time, a great deal of effort hard work and attention to detail has made this place the wonderful aesthetically pleasing place it is today,” she said. “What a great place to study and I’m sure all today’s graduands have enjoyed the privilege very much.”

It was in 1987, while she was in her first teaching post at Culcheth High School in Warrington at the age of 23 that she joined the hockey team in Chester. After a dramatic challenge, her opponent joked that she would make a good rugby player. She invited Gill to join a group playing for Liverpool Polytechnic, training at Waterloo Rugby Club.

A year later, she was spotted by scouts and playing for England, making her international debut against Sweden at Waterloo, in a game she not only played in but helped to organise.

She said: “Over the years it has been an honour to be described as a pioneer, a trailblazer and a sporting heroine with regards to women’s rugby but I was simply doing what I loved with commitment and passion. We were blissfully unaware of the fact that we were blazing a trail, we just wanted to play our chosen game as we knew no one else would sort it out for us. We had to do it ourselves.

“It is a privilege to be linked with the women breaking through celebration (link to Wonder Women page) at Edge Hill, however what the individuals that played a part in the historic campaign for the women’s vote like Emmeline Pankhurst and Louise Mary Eates did was far more hard hitting and self-sacrificing than the things we did. However in the late 1980s the Waterloo girls’ team did dare to drink in the men’s bar,” she joked.  “After one of our first home games, we all went in, bought a drink and stood where no women had stood before. The inappropriately named Men’s Bar had a sign on the door that said ‘no women or dogs allowed’. This was only 30 years ago.

“That sign was removed very soon after we started playing at the club. I was blamed for removing it, but I promise that I didn’t and as far as I know none of the other girls did either. I never did find out who had removed the sign, but I like to think that one of the club committee actually watched a women’s game and thought to themselves ‘those girls can actually play rugby, why should we ban them from the bar?’”

During Gill’s career she has won the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Team Award, as captain representing her team for Sports Personality of the Year, receiving her MBE from the Queen in 2005 for her services to sport and in 2013 being voted all time hero at Waterloo Rugby Club.

“In sport it’s important to have a charismatic and inspirational leadership to empower people,” said Gill and I’m very pleased to say that the young women who do want to play rugby have people to aspire too. Women in rugby are now represented as senior administrators, match officials, coaches, journalists, sports analysts. The past players appear on TV as pundits and there are international players out there that young girls look up to.”

In 2017 the national county rugby competition was re-named the Gill Burns County Championship, and in June 2019, Gill became President of Lancashire County Rugby Football Union.

She said: “My advice to students graduating today is to take the most of every opportunity, no matter how daunting and grab it with both hands.

“Make sure you commit wholeheartedly and make the sacrifices that need to be made so you can give it your best. If you do that you will all make a positive impact in your respective fields.”

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