Swimming With Sharks! We check in with DMP Sharks to find out more about the club
Rugby fans talk a lot about the sports vaunted values. Every time the All Blacks are pictured sweeping a dressing room or unloading their own bags social media erupts in a self-righteous frenzy of folk proclaiming the greatness of the sport we love. I think rugby’s great too, but not because a big team do some nice things when a camera is nearby.
For me rugby is great because even in the face of insurmountable score lines teams dig in and give it their all. It’s special because people volunteer their time and impact their careers travelling for hours to training and losing whole weekends to go and play games that they know they are not expected to win. Despite all that, players band together, become closer and show all the values of teamwork, respect, and effort that we look for in our heroes. No team encapsulates that better than DMP Durham Sharks and that’s why I’m delighted to kick off a new series diving into every Premier 15s team with these inspiring women!
So it was that on Monday evening I shared a call with players who were tired from a physical 104-point loss against Saracens, from getting home well after midnight and from having to drag themselves out of bed early the next morning to go to work or university. So let’s start with a huge thank you to Emily Hunter, a veteran front row player who limped off partway through Sunday’s game. To Mackenzie Thomas, known to her teammates as Kenny, the Canadian back who adds a spark to their link play and provides a well thought out view of the club. Chloe Broom is still at university but is already a key player for the Sharks at scrum half and her enthusiasm for the squad is infectious and Trudy Cowan, who is in the last stages of teacher training but still summons the energy to rack up tackle and turnover stats reminiscent of her namesake (and one of my all-time favourite players) Blair Cowan, the London Irish legend who, like Trudy, quietly keeps his teams ticking.
It has been a rough couple of years for DMP Sharks, when the Premier 15s was re-tendered, they lost traditional rivals Firwood Waterloo and Richmond, two teams in a similar situation structurally and financially. DMP’s bid to stay was accepted in part because they forged a link with Durham University, a link that was meant to boost their player pathway as well as opening up new facilities. It has paid off in some ways with the club now using Durham’s gym and training facilities, but the union has never fully taken off, Covid putting paid to plans for training aligned with the university team and other ideas to bring the two sides closer together.
Results tend paint an unfair picture of these Sharks, very one-sided score lines suggest an insurmountable gulf in skill that just isn’t there. Watch them and you’ll see that DMP can thread some lovely phases together and have a powerful scrum. Just this week Rachael Burford on the Women’s Rugby Pod said that they are a team who make it incredibly difficult for their opposition and other players and coaches regularly praise their physicality and tenacity.
Around the league there’s a lot of love for this team. It’s been a steady supplier of international talent, including current World Player of the Year Zoe Aldcroft and when, on Sunday evening, the club opened up about the harassment they have received on social media it was heartening to see their rival clubs and players rushing to show them support.
The truth is though, that there is a gulf between DMP and most of their opponents. They currently have no senior internationals in their squad, no imported players (Kenny might be Canadian but the northeast has been her home for nearly a decade) and a budget that is a fraction of most others. They are aligned to a men’s team but unlike the other nine AP15s clubs, their links are in National 1 instead of the Premiership.
They lack the brand value of other teams too. Ask a person in the street if they have heard of Harlequins or Wasps and the chances are the names will be known to them. Darlington Mowden Park on the other hand, while a club with a rich history, isn’t one that most casual fans will immediately know. Indeed, Trudy shared a story on the call of wearing her team jacket to university one day and a lecturer making a passing comment about recognising the club crest from his amateur rugby days. Later the same lecturer made a point to find Cowan again when it dawned on him that she was playing elite women’s rugby to tell her how impressed he was… he had no idea such a team existed in the area.
It’s a ready reminder that there’s a lot more to do to establish the league as one that even the most casual follower of sport will be aware of.
Despite all this though, the team continue to embody the spirit of this game as well as any other. I asked each of the ladies who gave up their time to help me write this what being a Shark meant to them (I’ve linked their videos throughout this article… do watch them) and the responses showed just how much they mean to each other. Chloe, who joined the team’s junior programme at 16 before making her way into the senior side tells me “The way the girls around me have helped me to grow, not only as a rugby player but as a person… I find it inspiring every time I’m here!”
“it’s very much an integral part of who I am” Kenny adds. “It’s amazing to have all these people who are friends and through that have become family. It’s a massive part of who I am and will always be, even when I no longer pull on the jersey.”
Trudy follows, clearly passionate about the subject. “It’s the best! It was always the best, it was about playing with the best, against the best…. Being the best you can be. Even when there are hard times, and you wonder why you are doing it you look at the people around you and think ‘this is the best’!”
I’ll give Emily Hunter the last word as she perfectly captures why every player in the league shows these girls respect and why I firmly believe they have it in them to climb their way up the table. “Sharks don’t swim backwards” she says. These sharks don’t look back either…. All eyes are on what is to come, and they will throw everything they can at it. I don’t envy Bristol Bears this weekend!