Nathalie Amiel: The 'country girl' turned Hall of Fame inductee

Former France international and World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Nathalie Amiel, who won 56 caps and experienced five Rugby World Cups as a player and a coach, discusses her incredible career in the game.

Nathalie Amiel speaks fast, as many people who don't like to talk about themselves do. She feels more comfortable acting in a collective than talking about herself. 

In a way, Amiel is a living metaphor of team sport and, most of all, of rugby. It's why, when she became one of the first women inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2014 she did not realise what it would mean for herself or for women walking the same path. 

“Everybody congratulated me, but I did not really pay attention to what was happening to me,” she revealed, six years later. 

“There was a lot of rugby stars around me. And there was Jo Maso. He was a star, he was an inspiration for people whilst I was just a country girl from my village! It's still hard to think that I was placed at the same level.”

Amiel is the kind of woman who has a worldly reluctance, finding it easier to take refuge in her homeland. 

Her roots are firmly planted in the Languedoc region of France. It's where she started playing with a ball in the 1970s — a big brown one she had to throw into a net. 

“But it was not my thing,” she admitted. 

Amiel also practised judo when she was young but by this time she was already surrounded by rugby. 

“Each time France won in the Five Nations tournament, we used to run onto the pitch with my two older brothers to play and to pretend to be just like them. And each time France lost, we would do something else,” she recalled.

Playing with the boys

When she was 12, her mother registered her for the first time at a club which offered a women's rugby section. 

But in Narbonne she was not allowed to train with the boys and, still today, this memory leaves a bitter taste in her mouth. 

It was actually in her own village, Capestang, that the local coach welcomed her, arms wide open, to train with the boys. 

At that age, she had the same small build as the others, so the prospect didn't worry her. She was just happy to finally be able to play rugby in a club with her friends.

The future international flanker sometimes played in the pack but what she enjoyed most about the game was developing the agility it required to dodge her opponents and avoid direct physical contact.

“Training with the boys forces you to overcome yourself,” she said. 

“I've learned how to avoid physical contact with my opponent because I quickly understood that if I physically came into contact with him, I would have suffered a bit. 

“So, I developed my skills considerably, my speed, the hooks, my stepping ... Lots of people used to say that rugby is a rough and painful sport. I disagree with that. It's not a rough and painful sport when we are well prepared!”

Everywhere Amiel played her nickname was 'Zebulon', “because each time I fell, I stood up straight away to run and play again,” she laughed.

First cap at ... 15 years old

The youngster made her coaches proud and they all gave her the same speech: “You promote women’s rugby.” 

She was told this all her life and it still makes her somewhat uneasy.

“I was just playing rugby,” she insisted. “People always put labels on everything and I'm fed up with this. Men, women, we all play rugby, full stop. And it should stay like that.”

Amiel likes to say that “rugby is my second nature”. It certainly has been a massive part of her life, having earned her first France cap when she was just 15 years old. 

“It wouldn't be possible today with all the rules, which is great for player welfare,” she said.

But in 1986 the women’s game in France was not governed by the Fédération Française de Rugby (FFR) and that ensured she could win her first cap in Richmond against Great Britain.

Another 55 test appearances would follow, primarily at flanker although she switched to centre towards the end of her playing career, which came in 2002. Amiel also represented France at three Rugby World Cups.

Coaching her country

She gave birth to her first son while still playing, taking only a short break. On her return to action, juggling life as a mother and rugby player did not bother her.

“It was not easy to deal with everything, between family life and my commitments with the team,” she said as she remembered how her son would react each time she left for a tour somewhere in the world. 

“But a coach should be happy to have mothers in his team because it shows him that if they are on the field instead of staying at home, it's to give everything to the team.” 

Amiel’s partner certainly had no problem with her continuing to play. “We met through the club, so it would have been inappropriate for him to tell me to stay at home,” she said.

After Amiel had decided to retire as a player, she gave birth to her second child. However, she always wanted to keep a foot in rugby. 

That is why she decided to study for a diploma in coaching, and then a second.

“But I did not want to become a proper coach,” she protested slightly. “I just wanted to learn how to play rugby in a different manner and if I had learnt like that before I played, I would have played in a different way.”

Amiel still had a deep connection to rugby and she couldn't refuse the offer to coach the France women's team when it was proposed, holding the post of assistant coach for five years and taking France to two Rugby World Cups, in 2010 and 2014.

“The [RWC] that gave me my best memory was the last one as a player, in 2002 in Spain,” Amiel explained. 

“My family was in the stands. Overall, I preferred to experience a Rugby World Cup as a player instead of a coach. Coaching means spending more time in front of a computer than on the field.”

Huge explosion of women’s rugby

As a coach she won the RWC 2014 bronze final, beating Ireland 25-18 at Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris. According to the stakeholders at that time, it is since this tournament that women’s rugby began to really grow in France. 

“I think the French rugby union was not prepared enough to deal with what happened,” Amiel said. 

“The infatuation was huge and the image the girls reflected pleased everybody. There was a lot of media coverage. People found a kind of madness in the women’s game, with passing and technique that came from the other side of the world.”

Since RWC 2014 women’s rugby has increased in popularity in France and become professional while keeping its original soul. 

“There is still the same spirit and it needs to be preserved,” she warned. 

“What's good about rugby today is the girls seem to have more time to get prepared. When I used to play, it was not easy to deal with everything. But it's getting better as it goes.”

Amiel regrets not having time to watch more rugby matches on TV. She still follows her sons, who play in Pro D2, and she still coaches the younger generations.

Through the Capestang Rugby School, she teaches players aged from four to 14 about rugby, its values and how to stay safe.

“I share something, I pass on the message and good practice,” she whispered humbly. 

She hasn't kept her trophies, cups and caps at home. She preferred to lend them to her local club as another example of motivation and inspiration for the generations to come.

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