Ulrika Andersson-Hall: A fairytale ending
By Ulrika Andersson-Hall
Ulrika Andersson-Hall was in the early days of her international career when Sweden last graced the Women's Rugby World Cup stage in Amsterdam. Twelve years on, she now captains her country and is relishing the challenges ahead.
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My most vivid memory from the Women's Rugby World Cup in 1998 is standing on the pitch waiting for our first opponents - England - and feeling like a complete beginner.
I had played handball all my life but didn't know too much about rugby. I had one cap under my belt, as did a large number of my teammates. We were all good athletes with lots of ball skills, but most of us were definitely lacking in rugby knowledge.
Since then, the development of rugby in Sweden has been tremendous and I can't believe my luck that I'll get another chance to play in the World Cup. This time as a proud captain of a team of great rugby players, including three of my teammates from 1998.
When we went into the Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 qualifiers on home soil in Stockholm last May, not many people believed that we would win our group. And in truth, I don't think we did either.
We had a nervous start against Italy and really didn't play well for large parts of the match. Italy looked like the winning team until a backline move from the last scrum of the game sent our winger Jennifer Lindholm in for a try that gave us a 16-14 win.
Hitting the headlines
This was broadcast on the main sports news in Sweden and all of a sudden there was a lot of media attention and interest in our games. But rather than putting us under pressure, I think this boosted our confidence before the decider against Spain.
This game was also very close with a couple of penalties being kicked by both teams, until again we scored a late decisive try through our replacement hooker Rebecka Lind to win 11-6.
We had qualified for Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 and we had our fairytale ending that evening, with our theme song for the week, Eurovision song "Fairytale", blasting out of the speakers.
Apart from the great atmosphere we have within the team, I think the key to our success last year was a solid defence, good discipline, and great fitness.
The qualification for Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 has certainly given a big boost to Women's Rugby here in Sweden.
We have never had such competition and commitment amongst the players and under the leadership of our new management team, headed by Jonas Ahl, we are well under way with selections and preparations for games coming up in 2010.
A freezing climate
The climate in Sweden obviously poses a slight challenge, so during the coldest months our main focus is on fitness in the gym - or in a metre of snow if you're brave! - interspersed with a few "indoor" rugby camps.
Now, when I say "indoor", I actually mean a big tent with artificial grass and a temperature the same as outdoors.
At last week's camp I realised that you learn something new at every camp, even at my age. I learnt that when playing rugby at -18ºC, fill your bottle with warm water or it'll be frozen even before the warm-up has finished!
Luckily, this year we have a spring and summer to prepare for the World Cup. We have games against the Netherlands, the European Cup in Strasbourg, and hopefully a couple more tests in the summer planned.
And since rugby is a summer sport in Sweden we will also have our domestic league between April and August, which means that for the first time we will turn up to an international tournament with a lot of rugby in our bodies.
It will certainly be exciting to see what we can do against the bigger rugby nations come August!
Next week we hear from South Africa coach Denver Wannies, who is working hard to prepare his players for a second Women's Rugby World Cup after making their debut at the 2006 event in Canada.
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