‘Inspirational’ Jim Greenwood left lasting legacy in women’s rugby

Emma Mitchell, Cheryl Stennett and Amanda Bennett discuss the impact World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Jim Greenwood had on the women’s game.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact Jim Greenwood has had on modern rugby union.

Five years ago, when the sixth edition of his seminal book ‘Total Rugby’ was published, its inside page contained tributes from luminary figures who had been influenced by the Scot and his work.

Alongside praise from his former pupil, Clive Woodward, were quotes from Ian McGeechan, Wayne Smith, Bill Freeman and two women who began their pioneering journeys at Loughborough University while Greenwood was a lecturer on campus.

Liza Burgess and Emma Mitchell would go on to captain Wales and England respectively, having fallen in love with rugby playing Greenwood’s 15-player brand of the game in the 1980s.

“Jim Greenwood was fantastic,” Mitchell wrote in 2015. “He taught us everything and encouraged us to learn and experiment.”

Both women continue to work in sport. Burgess, who followed her mentor into coaching, became the first woman to be elected to the Welsh Rugby Union Board in November last year.

“He was ahead of his time in every respect,” Burgess wrote. “Without him women’s rugby in the UK would not have been the same.”

‘A wonderful teacher’

Greenwood, who died in 2010 aged 81, had enjoyed a stellar playing and coaching career by the time he was convinced to lend a helping hand to Loughborough’s women.

A back-row of international repute, he captained Scotland in nine of his 20 tests between 1952-59 and scored two tries for the British and Irish Lions during the drawn series against South Africa in 1955.

Having started work at Loughborough University in 1968, the World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee would help shape the careers of Woodward, Fran Cotton, Andy Robinson and many others.

Greenwood’s commitment to an all-court style of play won admirers around the world, and he coached in Canada, Japan, the USA and New Zealand — where he was known as ‘Mr Rugby’.

But it was in Loughborough that he arguably left the biggest mark. In the mid-1980s, female faces began to appear at his lectures on rugby and, having remarked that it was encouraging to see, he was eventually talked into helping out at training.

“My first coach was Jim Greenwood,” Mitchell told World Rugby. “How fortunate could you be as a sort of young beginner to have Jim as a coach? 

“[He was] truly inspirational and just a wonderful teacher.”

‘Jim was decades ahead’

Greenwood might have needed some initial cajoling but he soon became so fond of working with players so willing to improve that he agreed to coach Great Britain and then England.

“His wife, Margo, remembered how after the first session he'd gone along to just sort of observe and maybe help out a little, he came home with a sort of skip in his step as he came through the door,” Mitchell added.

“I think he felt we were just a group of sponges who were so motivated to learn the game, to listen, to apply what we were hearing. And we were all, you know, fairly bright and just wanted to get on with it. I think he found that incredibly rewarding.”

Amanda Bennett was Loughborough captain when Greenwood came on board, and recalled how the players devoured the three books he wrote on the game. Like her club and international team-mate Burgess, Bennett has gone on to forge a career in coaching.

“A lovelier man you could not hope to meet,” she said. “In terms of a rugby brain, still even now, while people talk about Eddie Jones or Warren Gatland and so on and so forth, Jim was decades ahead of his peers.”

Greenwood’s involvement with women’s rugby came at an opportune time. The Women’s Rugby Football Union (WRFU) had been formed in 1983, and, following a tour of the UK and France by an American side, the Wiverns, in November 1985, British eyes had been opened to the possibility of international fixtures.

Respected and honest

Great Britain’s appearance in the European Championships in 1988, as well as England’s early test matches, meant that more and more players outside of Loughborough came into contact with Greenwood’s methods.

“When we were leading up to the first international that I played, we were training once a month up in Loughborough with him,” former England winger Cheryl Stennett recalled.

“He was so respected and so honest with everybody. You know, if he knew that there was a weakness in your game, he would speak to you about it and look at how you could improve on that.

“That was just brilliant and you just respected him for that, and you wanted to work for him.”

Greenwood would step down as England coach before the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup in Wales in 1991, passing on the team to Steve Dowling, who had played under him at Loughborough.

It is clear from his writing, though, just how much guiding those players meant to the Scot in his later coaching life.

“A group who have attained unexpected importance are women players. Undeterred by the criticism of prejudiced men and women, more and more women are taking up rugby as players,” Greenwood wrote in a later edition of Total Rugby.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coaching Loughborough, England, and GB women’s teams. A nicer bunch of people and a greater degree of dedication to the game or pleasure in playing, I’ve never encountered.

“But as a coach, what stands out is the talent the best women players show for the game. In terms of reading the game, intelligent decision-making, improvising answers to unexpected problems, range of skills, the women give nothing away to the men. They are equally committed to attack and defence, and equally whole-hearted in contact.

“When you consider that none of the players has any experience predating higher education, their feeling for the game is remarkable.”

Read more: Claire Cruikshank: ‘I want to be a coach people want to play for’

Last updated: Jun 15, 2020 11:54:13 AM
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