Rugby World Cup-winner Rachael Burford is putting the knowledge she has gained on the pitch to good use by keeping aspiring players engaged with the game during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Harlequins and England centre launched the Lockdown Squad programme through her Burford Academy at the start of April, having received a positive response to a series of training videos she posted on social media.

As the impact of the lockdown in the UK became clear, Burford devised a free eight-week online course to aid both rugby-obsessed children and their parents during their extended stay at home.

The 33-year-old has since uploaded daily videos on social media while participants can download a Lockdown Squad Progress Pack and try their hand at challenges, drills and trick shots.

Burford initially thought the programme would interest girls enrolled on her academy camps prior to the pandemic but with more than 1,000 participants now signed up she admits to being blown away by its success.

“I was so surprised. On day one, I purposely didn’t open the emails to show where people had been subscribing,” she told World Rugby.

“It was over 500 within three days and then we got to over 900 and then to over 1,000. And it was just really, I don’t know, overwhelming. I didn’t expect that response.”

Famous friends

Burford has been joined, virtually, by some famous faces during her workouts with current and former team-mates and opponents lending their support. 

England colleagues Rochelle Clark, Katy Daley-Mclean and Vicky Fleetwood, Quins club-mate and Scotland international Jade Konkel and New Zealand's World Rugby Women's Sevens Player of the Year 2019 Ruby Tui are among those to have appeared in the last four weeks. Former Red Roses assistant coach Graham Smith has also been in touch with some feedback.

“I was getting quite a bit of banter off some of them,” Burford explained. 

“So I was like, right, I’ll just get you involved in some way. A lot of them were schooling me in the trick shot stuff that we did but it’s making it visible, it’s championing each other.”

One particular trick shot has remained out of the England sevens and 15s international’s reach despite a month of increasingly frustrating practice.

It involves placing a bottle of water on top of a rugby ball that has been positioned on a kicking tee. The idea is to kick the ball and watch the water bottle spin up into the air before landing upright on the floor.

“I’ve got to the point where I’m just kicking the bottle now I’m so frustrated with it,” said Burford, whose exacerbation intensified when Daley-Mclean twice completed it in just two attempts. 

“It takes so much time to stack it back up, go again, stack it back up, go again but I’m trying to get there.”

Burford’s attempts prompted one participant to email her and commend her for the “raw” aesthetic of the videos.

“Even though you’ve achieved all you’ve achieved, you’re still not good at everything but you still persevere and you still work hard,” as she recalled.

“I think he was alluding to the fact that it’s nice to show something that’s not completely clean cut, this is exactly how you do it. So, that was really nice.”

Maintaining momentum

Burford might not have mastered the bottle trick, yet, but she has developed myriad skills in the process of producing, editing and uploading her content.

She has also been leading online coaching sessions with clubs around the country, and is hopeful that is something that could help her reach more young women and girls post-lockdown.

But while people remain confined to their homes, Burford is keen to ensure that women who play sport remain visible.

“It’s really important that we keep girls engaged with this,” explained Burford, a member of World Rugby's Women's Advisory Committee. “Some of my videos, at the end of them I’m really sweaty, I’m dirty — it’s about shouting about those things as well. 

“Because they’re some of the areas which [can cause] problems with girls taking part in sport. They don’t want to get sweaty, they don’t want their hair to get messy and it’s just kind of putting it out there that it’s OK, that it’s part of it and it’s a good thing. 

“In terms of women’s sport, I think we really need to keep the momentum that we gathered.”

Burford is part of the Women’s Sports Trust’s ‘Unlocked’ programme, which was launched in January, and is eager to do her bit during the lockdown.

“It’s [about] being able to still use key people in women’s sport to keep trying to hold onto that momentum so that when we come back into sport we’re not taking a backward step,” she added. 

“We just pick up from where we left off.”