Former Lioness Claire Rafferty: ‘In rugby there’s a level of respect you just don’t get in football’

Claire Rafferty (L) and Rosie Galligan - Former Lioness Claire Rafferty: ‘In rugby there’s a level of respect you just don’t get in football’
Before this interview, Claire Rafferty (left) and Rosie Galligan had never met - Paul Grover

Dressed head to toe in rugby kit, Claire Rafferty bounces into the clubhouse at Sevenoaks RFC and plonks herself down next to Rosie Galligan on a sofa.

Rafferty, a former Lioness, and Galligan, a current Red Roses second row, have never met but over the next half-hour strike up a warm conversation that meanders from the booming profile of women’s sport to one of rugby’s great debates: whether fake eyelashes can stay put in a maul.

Rafferty, who made more than 100 appearances for Chelsea in the Women’s Super League, was capped 18 times for England and featured at the London 2012 Olympics for Great Britain, has started playing rugby at Galligan’s local club, Sevenoaks.

Clare Rafferty - Former Lioness Claire Rafferty: ‘In rugby there’s a level of respect you just don’t get in football’
Clare Rafferty made 18 appearances for England - Getty Images/Mike Hewitt

For anyone who has suffered three anterior cruciate ligament injuries – as Rafferty did during her 15-year career – the rough-and-tough nature of rugby might not appear the most natural choice.

So Telegraph Sport brought the pair together to discuss their respective journeys as elite sportswomen and Rafferty’s unexpected decision to pick up the oval ball.

“I was scared of rugby,” says Rafferty, 35, who retired in 2019. “I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know anyone. I was scared I’d get hurt and I was sick of being injured. I had so much trouble with injuries and there was almost a... resentment. But the biggest driver [for starting rugby] was that I wanted to find a new identity away from football. I kind of reinvented myself a little bit. The fear just dissipated.”

Rugby had always been on Rafferty’s radar. The Sevenoaks native had begun to watch internationals on television and joined the Kent club, who produced England’s Ben Earl, after a friend recommended she try it.

Galligan’s curiosity piques. “When you turned up to your first training session, did you say anything, like did people know who you were?” she asks.

“I didn’t say a thing,” Rafferty smirks. “But the girls were like, ‘Are they football boots you’ve got on?’ Even learning how to kick the ball and adjusting to the shape of it was totally different. The pressure came back. I was a footballer. I thought, ‘Surely people are going to expect me to kick a rugby ball!’”

Pressure has been a feature of both women’s lives. Rafferty turned professional only at 25 – the same age Galligan is now – after a part-time job as a financial analyst for Deutsche Bank. She came through the England ranks at a time when women’s football had a fraction of the resources, investment and off-field support that it does now. Rafferty became a victim of the flawed system she found herself in.

Conforming to stereotypes

When she started on the England player pathway, aged 15, she was subjected to regular weigh-ins which led to a battle with an eating disorder. “In terms of the training environment and being weighed, there are expectations on what your body weight should be, even though everyone is different sizes and have different genetic makeups, you’re made to fit within a certain body type, have a certain body fat,” Rafferty says. “Then you’ve got the pressure from the media.”

As a sportswoman with a growing profile, Galligan, who was awarded a professional contract with the Rugby Football Union after featuring in the 2022 World Cup, can relate to the pressure of having to conform to feminine stereotypes. “I used to wear a full face of make-up for rugby in my younger years,” she says. “One day, I was like, ‘Why am I doing this? I don’t wear any make-up during the week, so why on Saturday am I putting bronzer, highlighter, eyeliner, waterproof mascara and lip gloss on?”

That is before factoring the precarious financial situation for today’s female athletes. Only recently were match fees and bonuses written into Red Roses contracts, while most contracts in rugby – and in women’s football – do not run beyond a year.

Rosie Galligan - Former Lioness Claire Rafferty: ‘In rugby there’s a level of respect you just don’t get in football’
Rosie Galligan endured a three-year gap between her first England cap, in 2019, and second in 2022 - Getty Images/Andy Buchanan

“Men’s footballers have money so that if they had to retire, they’d be absolutely fine,” Galligan says. “My dad said to me the other day – because we have contract renewal coming up – ‘What if you don’t get a renewal?’

“I’ve just got a mortgage, my livelihood would completely change. I did a few years as a marketing manager so I’d have something to fall back on and hopefully bounce back, but for some of the girls who have had contracts since 17, 18… your rugby career could end any time. It’s quite a precarious way to live.”

‘I kind of wish I’d played rugby growing up’

As a former professional, Rafferty has rediscovered the unbridled joy of grass-roots sport as a full-back at Sevenoaks, who are one of the latest rugby clubs in the country to launch a women’s team. Since 2017, more than 130 have set up women’s sides, with the number of female players soaring from 25,000 to 40,000 in five years. The RFU hopes this number will increase to 100,000 by 2027.

“I kind of wish I’d played rugby growing up,” Rafferty reflects. “The environment is so much more open. I don’t know whether I’m saying that because I had a high-pressure career. But, with rugby there’s a whole level of respect you don’t get in football. I remember in training I accidentally swore at the referee and immediately felt bad. In football, that’s the norm.”

Galligan laughs, before regaling her own horror story at a recent football match when she was surrounded by fans shouting obscenities. Rafferty steers the conversation onto a more meatier subject.

‘Women’s rugby needs to be on TV more’

“I don’t think women are on TV enough,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It should definitely be on TV more. That’s obviously what’s changed about women’s football. I feel there needs to be more investment in that area in rugby.”

The Women’s Six Nations has made its home on the BBC but the general broadcast offering for international women’s rugby remains sketchy. England’s WXV campaign last year was not shown on a main channel. The team’s two warm-up matches were relegated to a live stream, but still attracted almost 250,000 online views.

It is a world away from football’s WSL. Chelsea’s 5-1 win over Liverpool last November had a record average audience for the league, with a peak of 955,000.

“We’re all on such different journeys where elite women’s sport is,” Galligan reflects. “The women’s Euros definitely paved the way for that. The Lionesses changed that legacy for the younger generation and that’s something that rugby over the next few years needs to buy into.”

Finally, what advice would she give to rugby newbie Rafferty? “Play with a smile on your face,” she says. “Life is so serious, especially when you’ve been in an elite sport and you know the pressures there. Embrace it, put your head where it hurts.”

She pauses, before offering up one last tip. “Lose a few eyelashes,” she says, as the pair burst into fits of laughter.

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.