With the turn of the year and the start of the senior red shirt playing programme, thoughts inevitably begin to turn towards the Inter-Services Championship. Players seek to impress in training and take their opportunities on the playing field during the warm-up matches, all hoping to be in with a shout of running out at Kingsholm or Twickenham to represent the Army against the RAF and Royal Navy.
This year Pte Courtney Pursglove (RLC) will no doubt be one of the players who both Service opposition teams will be looking out for, having burst onto the representative scene in style in 2022, with two tries against the RAF and three more against the Navy, not to mention plenty of goal kicking at Twickenham, too.
Since then the speedster has continued her momentum, training with England Sevens and getting more action in women’s exhibitions matches at the London Sevens, signing with Sale Sharks in the Premier 15s, winning the RLC’s Young Sportswoman of the Year and finishing the year as runner-up in the Army Sport Rising Star of the Year.
It was an impressive 2022 for Courtney.
Images clockwise from top left © Army v RAF Match, Army v Navy Match, Neil Kennedy and JMP Sport
But roll back 12 months and the now-23-year-old was one of the group of hopefuls nervously waiting for a call-up.
“I was shocked to get into the Inter-Services squad last year!” she recalls. “My most proud moment was the email about getting into the I-S squad. That was my goal and everything else was a bonus.
“It was amazing. The group we’ve got has got plenty of experience and loads of different players and you get different things from different people. Without Beth and Jade last year I’d have been like a lost puppy! The coaching staff as well were great. It’s difficult to put into words how much like a family it is. That is why we won, because of the group we had and how well we bonded and wanted to work for each other. Everything came from that.”
Pte Pursglove may still be in the early years of her career, but she has packed plenty into that time, from representing the North of England at Under-18 level to getting time at Women’s Super League clubs, Featherstone Rovers and Castleford Tigers.
But there is no denying that the 2022 Inter-Services Championship was a springboard upwards, starting with the invitation to join the national Sevens training group.
“That was after Twickenham and a few weeks later I got a message from James Rodwell asking if I’d like to come into camp,” Pte Pursglove says. “It shows what you can do at Army level and that you’re going to be seen. Also how good military rugby is, and how good it can get if people are getting noticed.
“I did a few sessions there and the exhibition games at Twickenham, which was really good – it wasn’t the red shirt though!
“The training was very intense, with a lot of clarity. We had Hong Kong play against us in training to show what we’d be going up against if we went up to the next level. It was good to get that experience of what it takes and what the training’s like, how fit you need to be. I was very lucky to be there.”
Images © Neil Kennedy
Then came another call, which would see her change codes at club level from League to Union, into the blue of Sale Sharks. Having finished in ninth place out of 10 in their first two seasons in the Premier 15s, Sale have made significant steps forward in the first half of 2022/23.
A three-game winning streak took them into second place after round 4, but mixed results since then have seen them become one of a cluster of five teams for whom the battle to be in the semi-finals could last deep into the rest of the season.
Pte Pursglove has certainly contributed, playing in all three of that winning streak and scoring against DMP Sharks, having also scored two tries against Wasps in an Allianz Cup win back in September.
“Last season I’d got in touch with them and was invited to a few sessions,” she explains. “We had a trial game against Leicester, and from there I was invited to pre-season, and from there they took me on.
“We’ve been seen as the underdogs and we like that tag. It’s been a great start to the league and a good Cup run and we want to continue that.
“It’s a proper good step up. Even in pre-season I could see that the standard was really high. But I like that competition, I like to be pushed. So being at a club where everyone is on the same page and wanting to perform is great.
“We’ve got half the American scrum, it seems like! It’s good to have them to learn off, and they bring the tempo and they correct you if you do something wrong.”
Having grown up in the north and represented the region in age group rugby, Pte Pursglove is also well aware of the positive influence that having a strong Premier 15s presence in that part of the country can have.
“It’s important to have a northern team,” she says. “There are a lot of girls who play at Sale because it’s northern. We get so many young girls coming to our games with shirts on, and it’s also important because people have jobs and responsibilities in the area. I’m fortunate because I could get based somewhere else, but that’s not the same case with everyone.”
Image © JMP Sport
January saw the Army Senior Women begin their Inter-Services Championship build-up with a hard-fought win over the Swedish international team. Pte Pursglove retained her kicking duties from 2022, albeit from the unfamiliar position of scrum-half. It was also the first game under new Head Coach, WO2 Sarah Mitchelson (RLC), and Pte Pursglove is enjoying working with the highly experienced former player and now coach.
“I needed a new set of ribs [after the game]!” she laughs. “It was a really tough game but really good to hopefully set us up for Inter-Services. Huddy’s been a great change. We loved Gemma last season, and Huddy as well. She gets us as a group and the importance of Inter-Services, all the little things as well. The vibe in camp has already been great, and to put a red shirt on together is a wholesome feeling. Twickenham was the proudest moment for me ever; nothing’s come close to that feeling.”
Pte Pursglove also praises the impact and influence that the senior players have in setting the standard, especially the team’s captain and vice-captain, SSgt Jade Mullen (AGC (SPS)) and Bdr Bethan Dainton (RA).
“Beth and Jade have obviously played at high levels,” Pte Pursglove says. “Bethan used to be a winger and she helped me out where she could. In training if you did anything wrong or were in the wrong place they’d pull you up and tell what you need to do and how to correct it. They still do it now!
“This year I wouldn’t classify myself as a senior player but if anyone needed help I’d obviously help or point them in the right direction if I couldn’t.”
Pte Pursglove is also grateful to the support she has had from 6 Regt RLC as she seeks to achieve her aspirations.
“The Army’s been amazing with me,” she says. “I get released to play for Sale, play for Army Rugby, and as long as I do everything I should then I get told I can concentrate on rugby. It’s amazing I’ve got a job like that and my chain of command fought my corner for me to get it.”
Image © British Army Sport
There is one more important subject to speak about. Anyone who attends a Premier 15s or Women’s international game will see the players meeting supporters, taking selfies and signing autographs, sometimes long after the final whistle has gone.
This was no different at Twickenham, where Pte Pursglove met her own young supporter, Isla Collins-Lindsay, whose father Shaun is a familiar face within the Army Rugby community. This connection has gone on to last longer than those few minutes pitchside, as Pte Pursglove explains.
“I met Isla at Twickenham last year,” she says. “She was wearing my shirt – I couldn’t believe it! I got a photo with her and from there she’s come to a few games and got a Sale Sharks shirt for Christmas. She plays rugby herself and is a great girl.
“If you’re coming to a women’s game that’s big anyway, because we don’t get the support the men do. Any young girl who wants to play rugby or idolises you, to spend five minutes with them could make their day and inspire them to join a club, which then helps to grow the game. The Army sees it as leaving the shirt in a better place, and that should be the same with every team. As long as we’re leaving the shirt in a better place and inspiring girls.”
The Army Senior Women are next in action against Bath on Saturday, February 25th.
Tickets for the 2023 Inter-Services Championship are now on sale.
CLICK HERE for information about the Army v RAF at Kingsholm, Gloucester, on Saturday, April 15th.
CLICK HERE for information about Army Navy at Twickenham on Saturday, May 13th.
Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks
Header and Featured Image © Army v Navy Match