Returning To The Red Roses: We chat with Laura Keates
She’s a World Cup winner with 60 caps to her name, but it’s been a while since she’s pulled on the white shirt. Laura Keates has battled back from horrendous injury to reclaim her spot as a cornerstone of the Worcester Warriors Women pack and now she’s getting the opportunity to reclaim her spot for the national team too!
“It’s a bit of a whirlwind if I’m honest, absolutely incredible!” Laura tells me when I ask what it’s like to be back in camp. It’s been three years since she last had the opportunity to wear the rose, which doesn’t seem like a long time… but it’s a period that has seen major change in the women’s game. When she was last running out for England the Premier 15s was a new idea and full-time professionals in the women’s game was still an aspiration. In the meantime, Sarah Bern has nailed down her place in the team and Shaunagh Brown has emerged as a top class tighthead so competition is fierce. Keates is a hugely respected player though, when the Women’s Rugby Show rounded up their team of the year Rachael Burford was quick to bring up Laura’s name. She hadn’t been back long enough to lock down a spot but Burf was clear that she expected her to be back in contention for this season.
So the road back to the international squad hasn’t been a conventional one for Laura, indeed by my estimation she is the only Red Rose ever to play for the team, line up against them in a high profile game and then get the opportunity to pull on the white shirt again! “The Baabaas game was awesome!” She tells me. As someone who paid out for a ticket I wholeheartedly agree, seeing Laura alongside a raft of brilliant players including not only the cream of talent from other nations but also England legends like Rocky Clark, Tamara Taylor and Danielle Waterman you’d be forgiven for thinking that Keates too was coming toward the end of her career… but watching her for Worcester and listening to her speak about being back in the England fold that seems far from the case!
Lining up against Simon Middleton’s team has given Laura a fairly unique insight on them too. “They were so slick against us. We were trying to throw a few things out there, but they were a really well drilled side, as England always have been. It’s nice to be back on the other side of that!“
Having not been around an England camp for a while I wonder how much things have changed, and Laura of course brings up the impact of Covid restrictions on the team. “You can’t hug anyone… some of these girls I’ve not seen for a while so you’re just excitedly waving at each other, which is a bit weird! Social distancing has become the new norm now though, even in training you scrummage against each other but then immediately space yourselves out to chat. These are different times, but unfortunately it’s beginning to feel quite normal”
This week the team head across the channel to take on old enemies France, with a return leg the following week. Games between these two teams are always entertaining with the result never easy to call. “We’ve had some great wins against them over the years” Laura says, “and some sad losses too. It’s going to be a tough one, definitely.”
For all the excitement of national team duty it’s been a bit of a roller coaster start to the season at club level. Worcester started the season with a nail biter against Saracens that went to the wire and felt like a cruel loss given their excellent performance. They followed up with a strong win against DMP Durham Sharks before suffering losses against a resurgent Wasps team and Exeter, who claimed their first ever Allianz Premier 15s win.
Worcester were on a real upward momentum before last season was halted, the addition of Jo Yapp as director of rugby seemingly giving them a new momentum. It has stalled a little in the last couple of weeks but Laura is positive about the future for the Warriors. “One of the major things Yappy’s brought in is the culture. As an ex Worcester player – who I was able to play alongside her when I first came to the team – everything for her is about the culture and building it as a squad. Getting that pride in the shirt. That’s definitely coming, there’s a few things here and there we need to tweak. We came out firing in that Sarries game and we need to find that again but I’m really excited about where we can get to!”
The Premier 15s has never had more interest in it and women’s rugby is often mentioned as one of the fastest growing sports in the country so it seems fitting that these games against France will see the Red Roses, finally, get to play in front of TV audiences on the BBC. Free-to-air games are crucial to continue to grow crowds. “That’s absolutely massive… I didn’t realise we would be on the BBC. I’ve had people asking where they can watch and this just makes it more accessible. To give young girls – and young boys – the chance to see men and women playing rugby. It’s fantastic to see things evening up a bit, I’m really excited to get back out there and hopefully this will mean a big crowd following and cheering us on!”