Best pals... junior rugby team-mates... now Horsham duo are in England squad together

Horsham RFC young guns Grace Clifford and Katie Shillaker have achieved every player’s dream and been selected in an England squad. They are among 35 players selected in the under-18 women’s squad.

Grace Clifford and Katie Shillaker in their Horsham colours
Grace Clifford and Katie Shillaker in their Horsham colours

They will be involved in a training camp this month, then hopefully a fixture against Scotland in February and potentially the Home Nations under-18s tournament in April.

It is an incredible achievement for a pair also selected for the Harlequins centre of excellence.

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Clifford said: “This feels like the opportunity of a life time and I’m so grateful.

Grace Clifford and Katie Shillaker in their England shirts

“Getting into the U18s squad is such a privilege. When I saw my name on that list I was stunned to think all the hard work I and the people around me had put in has actually paid off – it was immense.

“It’s crazy to think this time last year I didn’t see rugby as career path or something I really excel in but more like something fun to do outside of my studies, yet here I am a year later, representing my country in a sport I’ve learned to love at 17.

“I would love to say I am the only person who got me to this point in my rugby journey, but that’s not the case.

“It started at Burgess Hill Rugby Club when I was eight and my first coach, Scott Caney, taught me to be put my head down, run forward and to not stop, no matter who or what was in my way.

Grace Clifford and Katie Shillaker in their junior playing days

“Funnily enough that advice paid off and it still works today.

“When I was 12 I was welcomed to the world of girls’ rugby by numerous coaches at Horsham Rugby Club who all helped me develop my skills from u13s all the way to u18s.

I’m so thankful for all the help I’ve received to get to where I am now – whether that was Tyrone Mathews picking me up on my punctuality on arrival to training or Adam Harman telling me to get even lower on the scrum machine, or Darren Burns forcing me to run up and down that pitch again and again.

“Every single step of the way I was glad to have my coaches pushing me and helping me become a better player.

Grace Clifford and Katie Shillaker at U15 level

“I’m also thankful to all the coaches who have given me my opportunities, such as my college coach, Mark Rugman, who put me forward as a candidate for the England Talent Development Group, which led to me becoming part of the U18 England squad, and a newer but just as valued coach of mine, Neil Hobbs, who helped me prepare for running 1200m at my first ETDG trial, which as a prop you can imagine I thoroughly enjoyed.

“But above all I think I’m most thankful for my dad, Karl Clifford, the one who got me into rugby, took me to my first training session in which I proceeded to pass the ball forward and faceplant the floor multiple times.

“Without him I don’t think I’d be playing the sport. He motivated me because he also played rugby, at a high level too. He told me how he played for Harlequins when he was younger so I challenged him that I would to once I was older – and I’ve just recently been invited to train with their ladies’ Allianz 15s Premiership team.

“And my mum, Gill England, has driven thousands of miles over the years to get me to all my games and endured all types of weather just to support me. And for that I will always be grateful.

Best of pals - Katie and Grace

“From this opportunity I’m hoping to play for England u20s next year and eventually for the Red Roses (England’s international women’s rugby team) but only time and a lot more fitness and perhaps a little bit of fun along the way will tell.

“This feels like the opportunity of a lifetime. Let’s just hope I get the opportunity to show everyone why I deserve to be here, and why I am part of this squad. All I want is to make my loved ones proud and to enjoy every single moment.”

Katie added: “What an achievement this is. I’ve made it! After hours and hours of training and gym, I have made a spot in the u18 England squad. I am more than proud of myself.

“I owe a massive thank you to all my coaches who have helped me on the way, starting with Scott Caney who was my first ever coach. He helped me become the player I am today.

“Playing alongside boys was hard but Scott never gave up on me or Grace which makes it all the better and I’m proud to say he was my coach, even though he’s a nutter. He supports me through everything and has been there this whole journey.

“Once I turned 12, I got the opportunity to start training and playing with a girls’ team which was a massive jump from the boys but it was worth it.

Grace Clifford and Katie Shillaker ready for the next chapter

“Horsham were the team I moved to and I am still there in my last season of u18s.

“I owe a massive thank-you to all my coaches but especially Adam Harman and Matt Brown who never doubted my ability and was pushing me to do my best the whole way through. They helped me improve all my skills.

“Being part of the England team is an unbelievable achievement and I have my best mate to celebrate and share this experience with.

“Grace is the one who pulled me along to the Burgess Hill session when we were eight and we have stuck with it and each other since.

“My parents have been the rock of my journey, with the hours and hours they spend driving me to training and matches and standing in the freezing cold to watch.

“They have always been there for me and knowing I made them proud has made it all the better.

“My dad has always been into rugby and has inspired me to do my best with everything and my mum, who is my No1 fan, without fail has been to every single one of my matches.”

The duo both played for Sussex under-15s at 13 and were in the Horsham under-15s team that reached a National Cup semi-final.

Matt Brown, Horsham under-18s coach, said: “They are obviously incredibly talented players but their attitude and work ethic is faultless.

“I am sure everyone at Horsham wishes them the best of luck in the coming months and looks forward to seeing them wearing the red rose on their shirts soon and for many years to come.”

Meanwhile Horsham’s U18s came top of their pool in the National cup, giving them a last-16 tie at Basildon on January 30.

The girls have a home Sussex Cup match against East Grinstead this Sunday.