No fear for ambitious Clough as she blazes fresh trail

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Sarah Clough was four when she was first ‘dragged’, as she remembers it, down to Old Rishworthians rugby club.

Her father John was in charge of the first team and her six-year-old brother was keen to play tag rugby with his friends.

NO FEAR: Sarah Clough, the new director of rugby at Halifax RUFC.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

NO FEAR: Sarah Clough, the new director of rugby at Halifax RUFC. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Sarah wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, but from the moment she held the oval ball in her hands for the first time, she was hooked.

Nearly two decades later, Sarah Clough is blazing a trail for women in a sport for so long deemed a man’s game.

She is a top-flight player in the women’s game, a north of England representative, a qualified referee since the age of 13 and a development coach for the Rugby Football Union.

But perhaps her biggest, and most pioneering role, is her greatest challenge to date, that of director of rugby at Halifax RUFC.

Clough is the only woman to hold such a role in the English men’s game. And at 22, there can’t be many younger directors of rugby.

She has a network of coaches below her, and three men’s teams, the most senior of which competes in Yorkshire Four.

There is also a women’s team and a mixed-ability squad.

She has not yet barked intructions from the sidelines at the first team, but let no gnarled 38-year-old prop think for a second that she wouldn’t dare.

“I refereed Cleckheaton fourth team for a number of years, so dealing with those guys on a weekly basis was good practice for this,” says Clough, who mixes her varied coaching and playing duties with the final year of a sports event management degree at Leeds Beckett University.

“It’s never been a problem giving orders to men and I don’t fear it. If anything I thrive on it.”

Clough was appointed to the role shortly before Christmas. Halifax were changing their coaching structure and deserve praise for their open-minded approach.

“Every club has got differences of opinion about female involvement but everyone here has been very supportive,” adds Clough, who plays at hooker for Darlington Mowden Park in the women’s Premiership. “Even ex-players, ex-presidents have all said it’s great to see new blood and fresh ideas coming into the club.

“Being a woman doesn’t make a difference down at the club. I’m just one of the guys. Because I am a girl maybe I am more approachable and more sensitive, but I can hold my own against them.

“I’m respected at the club due to my playing credits.”

Her coaching and managerial credentials also command respect; Yorkshire women and girls senior team manager, West Yorkshire women and girls co-ordinator and the RFU’s regional development coach.

“What I say to the players is I’m not necessarily the best coach in the world but I’ve been coached by the best,” continues Clough, who conducted regular training sessions with Halifax’s women’s team before getting the top job.

“The England women’s forwards coach comes up once a month to Darlington and does a session with us, so I’m being coached by the best.

“Maybe I’m not as good as him, but I can relay his message.

“Playing at a high level and being coached at a high level in women’s rugby will hopefully translate at Halifax.”

Rugby is acclimatising to a rapidly growing women’s game, just as football and cricket have been in recent years.

The England rugby team’s triumph at the women’s World Cup last autumn in France could prove the catalyst the sport was looking for.

And Clough’s elevation to a senior role in the men’s game might break another boundary.

“It’s become more socially acceptable for women to be involved in rugby,” she says.

“I’d love to see more women coaching; more women in charge of men’s teams and women’s teams, and there’s no reason men can’t be in charge of women.

“A person’s sex is irrelevant. If you can do the job that’s all that matters. And I believe I’m the right person to take this club forward.”

And therein lies Clough’s primary goal, not so much being a standard-bearer for women in rugby, but resurrecting the name of Halifax that used to resonate not only in Yorkshire rugby, but in the north of England.

“There are plans for the clubhouse to be developed, but it all starts on the pitch, getting out of Yorkshire Four and building from there,” says Clough, as she looks upon the tired surroundings of her club’s Ovenden Park home.

“The rugby will bring in the supporters and will then bring in the money behind the bar.

“In five years time I’d like to see junior teams back down here. We’ve got the facilities; changing rooms, three pitches. That will then feed into the first team.”

So what of her own long-term ambition? “Stuart Lancaster’s job,” she says with a wry smile, but who would put it past her?