On November 24, 2021, the newly appointed England Women’s Fire Service Rugby competed against the British Police Women at the London Welsh RFC. For the women and coaches of the Fire Service rugby team it was the first fixture of what hopes to be a long-running event, and it was a day held in celebration of women in the emergency services and women in rugby. Guests to the event included female students from a number of local schools, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) outreach team, the Harlequins Foundation, the LFB members of the Antarctic Fire Angels who raised over £500 on the day for The Fire Fighters Charity, and as a surprise for the Fire Service team, an extra special VIP guest was invited to attend their pre-match training camp to hand out the shirts.

The newly appointed England Women’s Fire Service Rugby competed against the British Police Women at the London Welsh RFC on November 24, 2021

This was a very exciting event for England Women’s Fire Service Rugby. Seven years ago there used to be a combined women’s Fire Service and Police rugby team who played against the army and other represented teams around the UK. Unfortunately, the combination of emergency services in one team did not work because of conflicting external unions and funding support, so the team had no choice but to separate. The police were able to continue running their own women’s team, but the Fire Service team was unable to sustain itself at the time, and it sadly dissolved. Two years ago, England Fire Service Rugby offered to reach out and support the re-introduction of a women’s team, and contacted the women’s head coach at London’s Barnes RFC, Kirsty Openshaw. Over these past two years, Kirsty has assembled and trained the team that came together against the police last November.

Unable to attend myself in person due to Covid, I caught up with LFB firefighter and forwards coach, Sarah Mimnagh, after the event to hear the news of the day. Sarah said: “We had a really great turnout. We managed to get two sides out, and we managed to get a development fixture going as well, which is really good, and the first team game was really competitive. The police had a lot more players, and during the second half they brought out some super-subs which allowed them to run away with the game, but the first half was a really good showing. We were in the lead at one point, and I think it was 10-5 at half time to the police, so we were very much still in with a chance.

“The actual atmosphere was brilliant. It was brutal on the pitch, but afterwards it was great.” Sarah explained that many of the opposing team players from the Met and the LFB already knew each other: “We’ve all worked together as a team on some nasty incidents, but [the police] definitely held nothing back on the pitch, that’s for sure, there was some fierce rivalry there!”

The match was heavily supported on both sides as Sarah explains: “The police had search dogs there, they had mounted division, and they had quite a lot of senior officers and local PCs. We had a couple of fire trucks, The Fire Fighters Charity, a couple of outreach teams from LFB and the highest-ranking female officer from the LFB there to watch. It was an excellent standard of rugby and a really good showcase for women’s rugby. I think it has set the foundations for this to be an army-navy style fixture.”

Bringing together a represented team from all across the UK during a pandemic has been challenging, but the dedication of the newly formed team has been no match for any obstacle. Sarah said: “The girls have only met each other twice before this match, but credit to the Fire Service, we very quickly have to gel with any team we’re put into, and so our girls did a really good job. One of the issues is getting people away from work and getting leave authorised. We had players coming from Scotland, Cumbria, Humberside, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset – there were very few brigades that weren’t represented.

“We managed to get the girls up the day before the match to make it into a training camp, so we were able to have a run through beforehand, but unfortunately we’re still at the stage where they are having to pay for their own hotels and travel, and some girls weren’t able to get leave so they had to arrange exchanges. But the fact that they all get on so well and play so well together is really special. These girls are building the foundations for [Women’s Fire Service Rugby], and it was so good to have a competitive fixture supported by senior officers, and hopefully this will build going forward.”

I asked Sarah, as an ex-international player and current coach, what were her highlights of the whole experience? She replied: “It’s just really positive that the girls are all willing to dedicate so much to the team so early in its development and their rugby careers. In the development team there are some girls who have only played three or four times. We have rugby league converts all the way up to ex-internationals, so we had a really big mix of players… From the Fire Service team, Jess Albeck was absolutely outstanding; a real heart and soul on the pitch kind of player. She carried herself really well, she was really proud to wear the shirt, she was definitely a stand-out player, even compared to the police team”

Another highlight of the event for Sarah was the giving out of the shirts the night before the match. Wheelchair rugby player and Paralympic Olympic Gold Medallist, Kylie Grimes, was invited to hand out the shirts to the team, which must surely have been a highlight and an inspiration for them all. Sarah said: “We wanted to make the shirt presentation as special as possible because the girls had all self-funded their travel and accommodation. Kylie was absolutely awesome! She brought along her gold medal from Tokyo and she really brought us all down to earth with her story. She’s the only female that plays wheelchair rugby and she’s the first ever female to win Paralympic Gold in wheelchair rugby. It was really inspirational for the girls. Playing representational rugby is a huge commitment, and with England Women’s Fire Service Rugby being so new it just added a little bit of something special until we get established and gain some sponsors.”

I asked Sarah about future plans for the team: “We’re going to try and look at this fixture being a double-header with the men’s teams and hold it on International Women’s Day – the emergency services version of the army-navy games, and we hope to continue to raise money for charity. Our next match is against the army in January in Aldershot at the army HQ, which will be quite a tough one for me because I also coach the army women’s team!”

England Women’s Fire Service Rugby are keen to secure sponsorship that can support their future endeavours and successes. Please contact me through FIRE magazine at lornawaranking@gmail.com if you are interested in sponsoring the team or would like more information on what is involved and I can put you in touch with Sarah and Kirsty.