Charlotte Gisbourne takes captaincy in era of growth for Shelford Women’s rugby team
It is not just the dawning of a new season but the beginning of a new chapter for Shelford Women this Saturday, and leading the way will be Charlotte Gisbourne.
The Peacocks kick off their Women’s NC1 East campaign away at Wymondham Wasps, and while that will form the focal point for now, the excitement will build into October.
Two weeks later, on October 10, history will be made when Shelford field a second women’s team in a league, with the Nomads taking a spot in Women’s NC3 Midlands (Central) league.
“It’s fantastically exciting,” said Gisbourne, the new first-team captain.
“I think a lot of people thought they needed the opportunity to get out and try something new after lockdown, so we found our numbers massively boomed, particularly last summer.
“It’s the natural next step forward for the women’s team, and it’s really exciting. It allows us that opportunity to take up rugby later in life so you get a lot of women who might be in their 20s starting completely new.
“So it’s nice to have that opportunity for people completely new to the game to get the chance to play and to learn the game.
“Also, for those that have played longer to learn new skills and try to be a really good side so it’s a really exciting time.”
That influx of players means that Shelford now have between 50 and 60 players on their books seeking to make one of the two teams at weekends or just enjoying being involved in the sport.
It was not too long ago, before Gisbourne’s time at the club, as she explains, that they only had 13 players available to select for the first team.
“Only today, I was replying to an email from someone asking if she could come down and give it a go,” she explains.
“We are seeing that happening more, which is exciting. I think a part of it is people going ‘I want to try something new’, but also, if you look at the profile of women’s rugby it is just going up and up and up.
“I started playing 10 years ago and back then, it was girls and women just didn’t play rugby – people just didn’t, it wasn’t even an option for them.
“Now, we’re seeing the success of our women’s side in the 15-a-side game and all the sevens, with the introduction to the Olympics as well, just the profile has massively gone up and there are people saying, ‘hang on, I think I can give this a go’. It’s brilliant to see.”
Gisbourne, who is now 24, was introduced to the sport aged 15.
The local side in Pulborough had started a girls’ section and were hosting a taster session at her younger sister’s primary school.
It led to them both being invited to attend the club side.
“The two of us went down to the first ever session there, about 10 or 15 girls, and that has gone from strength to strength as well,” says Gisbourne.
“They’ve now got hundreds of girls and they’ve been national champions and all sorts, so that was a real success story as well and really cool to be part of.”
With women’s rugby in particular, there is a big transition of players from other sports, so what was the appeal for Gisbourne?
“I used to be a swimmer, and did that for a few years and really enjoyed it but was never quite the right build for it,” she says.
“There was something about rugby, I used to watch it as a kid, and just thought it looked really fun. When you get involved in it, it’s such a fantastic environment, it’s such a family atmosphere.
“It doesn’t matter what shape or size you are, there is a position for you. If I’m honest, I love the physicality of it as well.”
After moving to the area following the completion of her degree, Gisbourne linked up with Shelford and found a welcoming environment.
That was two years ago, and now the half-back – who has converted from the front row – has taken over from Leanne Robinson as captain.
“She did a phenomenal job, on what was a pretty difficult season to be captain I think because we didn’t play a huge amount of rugby,” says Gisbourne, of her predecessor.
“It’s a big challenge for me, and exciting to be involved with the start of the second team as well. It’s a busy time, with lots to do at the moment, but it’s really good fun.”
With the introduction of a second team into the league set-up for the first time, there are dual targets for the campaign.
“For the seconds, my hope is really to get properly established within that league, to get good numbers down for that as well and obviously you want a good performance in the league, but the main thing is to give people the opportunity to play there and to learn their trade,” says Gisbourne.
“For the firsts, I will be straight up, I think we’re looking for promotion this year.
“You don’t want to sound cocky but looking at what we’re doing in training it’s looking really impressive.
“My hope would be that we really make a statement in the league to win it, and seek promotion.”
One of the big aspects for the women’s squad has been the way that they have been integrated into the whole club vibe that Shelford are trying to create.
“Even in the time I’ve been with them, which is relatively short, the difference it’s making as the whole leadership team is behind it, the investment has been put there, it’s making a huge difference and we’re starting to build something really quite special there I think,” adds Gisbourne.
“We were playing a game of some of the ready-for-rugby touch stuff, maybe six months ago, and we had the entire men’s section down there cheering their heads off for us.
“It’s not something I’ve really ever experienced before. The women’s and men’s tend to be separate, so that sort of stuff means we do feel part of one big club at Shelford, which is fantastic.”