England hooker Clara Nielson no longer feels like the odd one out, writes Paul Martin.
The Bristol Bears captain “vividly remembers” being the only girl to play rugby among her classmates at school – but believes such experiences are becoming rarer due to the progress made within the sport since her early days.
“There are so many more girls playing now, especially at a younger level,” Nielson said.
“When I went to university, I was one of the only ones who had played before. So many people take it up quite late.
“Now, more girls are starting younger. There are under-13 teams that never existed when I was that age.
“I definitely think there are more girls playing and the whole development side is stronger.”
Nielson’s love of the game came from growing up with a rugby-mad dad and two brothers – and she hasn’t looked back since joining the girls’ section at Tavistock RFC, in Devon, at the age of 13.
2019 was a particularly impressive year for the front-row forward as Nielson helped Exeter University to BUCS Championship glory at Twickenham and represented England in last summer’s Super Series in the USA.
If that wasn’t enough, she rounded off the year by featuring for the Barbarians against Wales Women at Principality Stadium in what she describes as “one of the best weeks of my life.”
“It was such a special experience,” she said.
“It takes you back to why you fell in love with rugby in the first place, how much fun it is and how much enjoyment you can get out of it.”
Enjoyment is now the key for Nielson as she turns her focus to her club. Bristol Bears currently sit seventh in the Tyrrells Premier 15s, although the season is suspended until further notice due to the coronavirus outbreak.
And the England international also credits the league for helping advance women’s rugby, both on and off the field.
“The girls are excited to get back into it, whenever that is,” she said.
“It has really grown the sport and I think that has been reflected in England’s performances as well.
“People will stop you and genuinely be interested in how you are doing.
“They will know the players and how you are doing in the league – even five years ago that wouldn’t have happened.
“It has changed a huge amount and it is only going to get better.”
In turn, Nielson and her Bristol Bears teammates now provide tangible role models for the women’s rugby stars of tomorrow.
“Only recently a few of us went down to North Bristol RFC to link up with Clevedon Girls,” Nielson said.
“To see them so excited that we were coming in to help them with training just goes to show that young girls look up to those of us playing at Premiership level.
“You can help give girls that dream of being a rugby player.”