“Sport is so mentally tough because there is no finish line,” Izzy noted. “If you win a match or competition, there’s always the next time. And you’ve always got yourself to compete against.”
Izzy knows a thing or two about competition. Her father, Mike Noel-Smith, represented the British Army rugby team and was part of a record-breaking attempt to row the Indian Ocean, and her two brothers are talented sportsmen in their own rights, playing rugby at national school and club level. She’s the middle sibling, and she looks back fondly on a childhood spent getting muddy and being distinctly unladylike: “I literally loved being outside, whether it was climbing trees or getting rugby tackled in the back garden by my brothers.”
Her parents encouraged their daughter to experiment with sports, content that she would find her forte eventually. “My earliest sporting memory was stomping around in ballet class when we were supposed to be imagining ‘dancing through a puddle’,” she laughs. “The ballet fizzled out as I got older, but I kept going with pony club – I loved the cross country for the jumping and going as fast as possible.”
Team sports always had their lure though. “When I went to secondary school, my main sport was lacrosse. I even played in goal for a bit which was brutal! I relished the competitive element, but I preferred [sports] where you played in a team.” Due to her dad’s work, Izzy moved schools and homes frequently. She attended Haberdashers Monmouth School for Girls until her GCSEs, but then moved to Doha College in Qatar for sixth form before finally finishing her A-levels at Exmouth Community College.
Amidst this upheaval, sport, and especially rugby, gave her continuity. “I was always good at sport, but not exceptional. In order to excel, you have to have to want to be the best you can be and not stop. You have to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.”
By this point, Izzy’s talent and tenacity had begun to pay off and she was selected for the England U19 and U20 squad, and then went on to play for the England A team (equivalent to the men’s Saxon team).
International tours, intensive training and a heavy fixture load followed, occupying much of her time. But she was well aware of how fickle and short an athlete’s career can be, and so a Sports Development and Coaching degree at Bath University beckoned, followed by an independent PGCSE at Buckingham University. Teaching had always appealed, and she relished passing on her enthusiasm for sports and exercise: “The coaching at my secondary school was enjoyable but it didn’t really push me. When I’m coaching there are two things I want to achieve: get the most of out the child, and for them to enjoy themselves. Sport at any age should be about enjoyment. Otherwise, no-one would want to do it as they get older.”
Professional sport, though, can be a lonely and unforgiving place, as Izzy found out in 2014 when she was dropped from the England squad just before the World Cup. “It took a lot of soul searching and resilience to come back from that,” she admits.
But that resilience paid off in the end when she was reselected for the squad two years later. Touchingly, despite her other sporting triumphs – “winning two grand slams, beating New Zealand on their home turf for the first time in 16 years” – it was that re-selection of which she is most proud.
Surely scoring a try in a World Cup final must come pretty close second, I suggest. “Yeah, it does,” she admits with a smile. “Representing England was a figment of my imagination growing up. The journey has meant such to me.” That she got to do it in front of a home crowd which included her whole family, including her 87-year-old granny and fiancé, was momentous.
Though, as happens so often in the turbulent world of sport, the fairytale ending eluded Izzy: England lost to New Zealand 41-32 – a respectable result but not the one Izzy and her team had been hoping for.
The final also marked the end of her international rugby career. Izzy announced her retirement in May, after winning 42 caps for England in a seven-year career, playing open and blindside flanker as well as No 8. It was a big decision, but she’s sanguine about the future: “It’s important not to let [sport] take over. I thought rugby was my sole identity for so long, but I now know and understand it is a small part of me which I’ll cherish forever.”
Unsurprisingly, Izzy isn’t planning on putting her feet up any time soon. She married her fiancé this summer surrounded by family and her England teammates, and they hope to start a family in the not-too-distant future. Coaching at the Paragon School and for various community groups in the Bath area is also keeping her busy.
“I think it’s really important for the right role models to send a message to children and encourage participation from a young age.”
In an environment where women’s sport – even in traditionally masculine pursuits like rugby – is finally receiving the commercial and public attention it deserves, athletes like Izzy are trailblazers. She and others like her help to ensure sport remains open for all, eroding outdated boundaries between ‘male’ and ‘female’ sports. This, in turn, encourages a new generation to grow up inspired and enthused by sports and physical exercise – regardless of their gender and upbringing. And that can only be positive.
After all, it takes balls to make it in the world of professional sport. And this girl’s got them.