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The major Six Nations concern for Wales and England ahead of World Cup 2023

Wales and England might regret stepping onto the coaching merry-go-round.

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'Celtic Challenge vital for developing players' maturity and understanding of professionalism'

By Rachael Burford
29th January 2023- WRU Development XV v Combined Provinces XV - Teleri Wyn Davies of WRU Development XV charges forward. Photo credit: WRU

On a whole, the Celtic Challenge competition is a really clever move from the three unions of Wales, Ireland and Scotland and the right way to help develop the countries. At the moment none of the unions have the strength in depth to support a strong club league of their own, but to collectively come together and build something that’s a steppingstone between club and country is really important. And it gives an opportunity for those home-grown players who don’t want to go and play their rugby in England or France to stay and play in their home country.


Having a strong pathway system into the national set up is so important. I remember when I used to play for England ‘A’ and England Academy, it was that next level of opportunity, whereas most other international teams now don’t have an ‘A’ squad or even an Under 20s squad, so creating something like the Celtic Cup which allows players to have a good span of competition and exposure to competitive rugby is really good.

It’s only year one for the competition so there are always going to be teething problems but the timing of the competition is really good and is only going to strengthen the national sides just before the Women’s Six Nations and allows selectors to look at new talent at a level up, not just in their domestic leagues and new coaches to work with these players.

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Claire Cruikshank for example, was part of World Rugby’s coaching internship programme at the World Cup, and is now the Head Coach of Scotland’s Thistles. The crossover of shared knowledge and resources are vital in a coach’s development.

The England pathway system was massive for me in my career, I played Under 19s for a season, then England Academy, then England ‘A’ and finally got my first call up to England. Having that pathway was extremely successful for a number of us, including the likes of Katy Daley McLean, Kat Marchant, Claire Allen, Nolli Waterman and Rocky Clark; players who stayed at the top of the game for a very long time.

On the pathway to the national team we were allowed to express ourselves without pressure and built good relationships and friendships. The truth is that not many players have the maturity or ability to move directly up from age group to senior level, so having something in between is fantastic.

Nowadays, England don’t have a senior development team, it’s now been restructured to include the Allianz Premier 15s league (AP15s) and that’s how players get pinpointed and noticed. The amount of current internationals playing in the league is the perfect breeding ground for young talent. For example, Shaunagh Brown first got noticed playing for Harlequins and look at the international career she went on to have.


The AP15s clubs are operating close to a professional set up now and allowing players to mature in those environments, depending on what level your club can provide, will help set you up internationally. But I believe there is still a gap in the developing players’ understanding of what ‘professional’ actually is.

This isn’t the players fault and more down to the nature of the school system. Young boys compete at school level where they operate in Academies of different clubs and they’re learning what it’s like in a professional set up from an early age, but in the girls’ system they don’t get that same four or five years leading into international or elite level rugby.

Boys are training weekly from the age of 16, getting nutrition advice and S&C programmes handed to them and that’s just not the case for young girls. Saying that, the Centre of Excellence is now becoming similar to the boy’s Academy system and a number of players from Harlequins have made the transition from the COE to the senior England Women’s squad.

The game has seen other positive developments in recent weeks. The Women’s Rugby Association (WRA) announced the first ever Players’ Board with a player representative from each Premier 15s club. How the organisation has collectively come together, spoken up, collected feedback from clubs and wanted to make a change, you have to take your hat off to them.


Player representation is still in its infancy for women in the international and club game. The biggest thing as the game becomes more and more professional is about educating players to know their rights and that is exactly what the WRA is doing.

The Rugby Players Association (RPA) have historically only represented the Red Roses, but they are looking to represent domestic players as well now, so it will be interesting to see how the two organisations work together and complement each other to benefit the player.

The RPA representation group has also fed into the process of updating the RFU’s maternity policy for England players which is due to be announced next month. The timing couldn’t be better with current Red Rose Abbie Ward announcing she is pregnant.

I think a lot of women historically have put off having children as there is no maternity policies in place at club level. You want players to have long lasting careers so why not protect them in that respect? A massive amount of growth has happened in this area but making sure there is a policy in place which suits women who play a contact sport is vital.

Abbie’s news is amazing, it sounds like she is going to continue training with the squad as long as it’s safe to do so and she’s already said she’ll do everything she can to get back postpartum so her baby can watch her play.

It’s not as simple as you have a baby and come back and crack on, and this area needs real thought given to it, not just with policies but with the general culture at a club, and how we can support women at grassroots level with resources and education around returning to training and training whilst pregnant.

The more transparent we can be in policies, discussions and education around pregnancy, the more it opens our game up and the more women will stay in the game.


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