The England center, 33, won her first international Test cap in 2006, and has gone on to claim over 80 more. Rachael, who plays club rugby at Harlequins in the UK, first picked up a rugby ball aged six and spent a decade at Medway RFC – one season playing alongside her mother, Renata, and sister Louise.
A gifted Rugby Sevens player, she participated in the 2009 and 2013 Sevens World Cups. Rachael has featured in four Rugby World Cups and started the 2014 final, which England won, before being named England’s Player of the Year. In 2016 she became the first female on the Rugby Players’ Association, and in the same year established The Burford Academy – the first rugby academy for girls and women in the UK. Additionally, Rachael is a respected media commentator and podcaster.
What excites you about Rugby Sevens in 2020?
Rachael Burford: In early January, at the dawn of a new year – and in this case, a new decade – it is only natural to reflect upon the past and also look ahead to the future. And when I think about the progress of Rugby Sevens it is amazing how far it has come, in such a short space of time.
This season the sport will take more leaps forward, I believe, as its momentum is unstoppable. It’s a virtuous circle: global demand for Rugby Sevens is growing, because the quality is improving every year, and that constant increase in global fanbase attracts yet more investment.
Consider for the 2019-2020 HSBC Women’s World Rugby Sevens Series, which began in the United States in October, there are a record eight legs. That number is now only two fewer than the men’s competition. And at four stops – Dubai, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Paris – the men and women will play their tournaments at the same venue, and every step towards parity is cause for celebration.
There is so much more excitement to come in 2020, too. Momentum is building towards the Tokyo Olympics, when the sport will make its second appearance at the Games, following a hugely successful debut in Rio de Janeiro four years ago, which triggered an explosion in its popularity around the world.
How has Rugby Sevens evolved since you started your career?
I made my international sevens debut for England in 2004, aged 17, and at that European event the posts were inflatable and the pitch had been shortened; we thought the pitch had been marked out for children. It’s crazy to look back and consider how the game – for both men and women – has evolved to become the worldwide phenomenon it is today.
In March 2009, I played in the inaugural Rugby Sevens World Cup for women, when our England team was probably the best in the competition but we lost in the quarter-final to the eventual winners Australia. Four years later, at my second Rugby Sevens World Cup, the gap had been narrowed, with many countries improving. While it was good for the neutral fan that the overall standard was better, it became clear for the players and coaches aspiring to be at the top of the sport that they could not stand still.
That is certainly true in the men’s Sevens Series. Last season, across the 10-stop campaign, there were seven different finalists, though Fiji – masters of on-pitch innovation – finished top of the pile, with the USA achieving a best overall finish of second.
How is Rugby Sevens leading the way in terms of innovation?
The women’s Sevens Series only began with the 2012-13 campaign, and there were four legs – half the number compared to this season. Now, most of the 11 core teams in the women’s competition are made up of full-time professionals – and in 15-a-side rugby many are still playing catch up on that front.
Indeed, Rugby Sevens is pioneering both on and off the pitch. Aside from leading the way on professional contracts for women, its inclusion at the Olympic Games has been a huge success. It has gained global popularity because it is much easier to understand than rugby union and the fast-paced action is perfect for social media. Another key point is that every tournament weekend there is an upset, where a supposed lesser team topples one of the bigger sides. Those results are so refreshing, and it inspires everyone to keep developing.
Why did the role of Rugby Sevens ambassador for Capgemini appeal to you?
It was a no brainer, because our principles are aligned. I am always looking to improve my game, and I’m very creative, exploring new opportunities. Capgemini is an organization that famously doesn’t stand still – it always wants to innovate and stay ahead of the game, making it a great match, too, for sevens.
Capgemini realizes that technology now plays such a critical part for the men and women, and that is something that continues to elevate the caliber of Rugby Sevens. For the 2019-20 Sevens Series, Capgemini has launched its pioneering Momentum Tracker, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to measure the performances of men’s and women’s teams. This tool is a welcome addition to a suite of digital products that empower fans – including the Match Predictor game, and a virtual reality (VR) experience.