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Down Under, Women’s Rugby’s on the up: 7s Supremos and a New Head Coach

By Claire Thomas
BARNET, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 10: Worcester Warriors Women Director of Rugby Jo Yapp looks on prior to the Allianz Premier 15s match between Saracens and Worcester Warriors at Allianz Park on October 10, 2020 in Barnet, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

If you do one thing today, go and watch a bunch of clips of the Australian women’s sevens team. If you can, go and watch them in the flesh some time. It is genuinely thrilling: they are magnificent.

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I had the pleasure of covering the Dubai and Cape Town legs of the new-look HSBC SVNS circuit this month, and finally got to see Charlotte Caslick and her golden girls do their thing in real life – after having only ever watched on from home, or frantically produced replays of their exploits from a television truck.

Defensively, their line flies up with an aggression and accuracy which elicits winces from spectators. They’ve all the cohesion and menace of a pack of lionesses going to work, and corner the ill-fated attacking side until they’re able to land the decisive blow. When they do, they hit like bronzed battering rams – immaculate hair bows whipping back and forth as their opponents are flattened or the ball is dislodged.

Once they have that ball, it’s game over. Checkmate: however they choose to score. Sometimes, they fizz it wide to a winged cannonball like Faith Nathan. Sometimes, they pick out a hurtling 12-second 100-metre flyer like Kaitlin Shave, and she cleaves through to cruise beneath the sticks. Sometimes, it’s a series of offloads both flashy and unerringly accurate. More often than not, they get it to Maddison Levi, who’s six foot of lithe killer instinct, with gunpowder in her boots.

They’ve not skipped a beat so far: winning a doozy of an arm wrestle with the Black Ferns in Dubai to retain their ‘Queens of the Desert’ status, and then surging to a lead so commanding against Les Bleues in Cape Town that even a red card to Levi couldn’t derail them.

They’re undefeated, full of confidence, and haven’t just thrown down an Olympic year gauntlet – but hurled one down with such force that the aftershocks were (apparently) the reason that swimming pool burst open after Sunday’s trophy presentation.

The circuit is teeming with amazing athletes, and they’re certainly not going to have things all their own way, but – for now – they’re the ones to beat, and I promise you’ll have a tonne of fun watching them strut their stuff over the remainder of the season.

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They’re flying the flag for Australian rugby – easily the best team Down Under – but there’s been a development within the 15s game which also merits attention. Because, just after Maddi Levi and her similarly prodigious sister Teagan put pen to paper – committing to the Aussie 7s programme until at least 2026 – former England scrum-half Jo Yapp signed her own green and gold contract.

Under former Head Coach Jay Tregonning, the Wallaroos reached a World Cup quarter-final, and then produced one of the performances of WXV 1 in notching just their second ever win over Les Bleues. That result was bookended by a chastening defeat to the eventual champions, and a six-point win over Wales – despite going down to 13 players at one stage.

If England, New Zealand, France, and Canada are ‘the big four’ of the international game, then Australia sit towards the top of the second tier – and have made their ambitions abundantly clear with the appointment of their first full-time head coach. They want to challenge those perennial World Cup semi-finalists, and achieve unprecedented success in England come 2025.

Yapp is a 70-time Red Rose with three World Cups under her belt – including a run to the final as skipper in 2006. Her move into coaching proved not only a professional success – swiftly confirmed by back-to-back BUCS Championships with Exeter University – but benefited the national set-up hugely.

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Her eye for and ability to nurture talent is formidable, and the athletes who emerged from her England U20s outfits are testament to that. Let’s hop back in time and pull up a random squad announcement. 2017. The second of a two-set series against France. Yapp selected – amongst others – Jess Breach, Lagi Tuima, Zoe Harrison, Zoe Aldcroft, Poppy Leitch, and Emma Uren. She knows her onions.

That role, and her execution within it, were key in her latest appointment. Rugby Australia’s CEO Paul Waugh made no secret of the fact: England’s system, he says, is ‘top of the heap’, and Yapp is one of those who hauled it to the game’s summit.

If the Aussies can put in place the sorts of structures which unearthed and honed those world class talents, then they’re onto a seriously good thing. Her inside knowledge of the above players, and many of the Red Roses’ other leading lights – who have repeatedly thwarted the women in gold – can’t hurt, either…

Yapp’s ability to root out and then show faith in young talents was intrinsic to her success at Worcester. She initially returned to the side where she’d played her own club rugby as a skills coach, but was soon made Director of Rugby – when she spoke about how selectively Warriors would recruit from outside their development pathways. There was such a lot of potential already in the area, she argued, that they didn’t want to throw everything into attracting super stars.

Vicky Laflin, Cara Brincat, Jemima Moss, and Akina Gondwe are all players who benefited from this wholehearted support, and went on to play a key role in the Midlands side’s progress during Yapp’s tenure. As the programme developed and the results came, increasingly established figures from around the world would join the blue and gold warriors, but there was always a Worcester core.

From a media perspective, Yapp – who’s also coached the Barbarians twice – has always been a delight to work with: honest, personable, and detailed in her analysis. She has the ability to combine her infectious passion for the game and her athletes with frank assessments of their performances, which gives you a glimpse into how she is behind the scenes: lofty standards, upheld with strong relationships.

Her players, clearly, would run through brick walls for her – and they were just starting to consistently produce impressive rugby, both dogged and dazzling, when the entire Warriors set-up was rocked to its core.

What Yapp did off-field when Worcester initially went into administration cannot be overstated: she was at the heart of their continued existence in the face of massive adversity, whilst also guiding them to increasingly impressive on-field statements. Imagine what she can achieve with financial stability: able to focus purely on performance – rather than coaching with one hand, and bailing a flood with a teacup with the other.

Then, imagine what the Wallaroos might go on to achieve in 2025 with comprehensive support for the first time. As Yapp herself observed, these women reached the last eight of a World Cup in 2022, and then finished third in WXV 1 this November, whilst semi-professional – compensating for a lack of funding and facilities with raw talent and ferocious hustle.

Australia produces fabulous out-and-out athletes, so the recruitment of someone who’s a talent ID and player development specialist is a canny move – plus she’ll be working closely with Jaime Fernandez, who’s been brought in to oversee the programme’s transition from part- to full-time.

He’s spent a decade developing pathways and cultures at Rowing Australia, so this feels a partnership with long term success in mind. They’ve a strong core squad already, and two years to mine the country for up-and-coming superstars (six, if their overarching target is that home World Cup in 2029) – not to mention what might happen if Yapp were allowed to, post-Olympics, have a chat with Tim Walsh about raiding that SVNS programme…

The appointment isn’t just a sea change moment for the Australian game, and testament to what a high calibre coach Yapp is – it should also leave her better-placed than ever to coach the Red Roses one day.

Her name was thrown around a lot after Simon Middleton’s departure was announced, but it felt incredibly unlikely the RFU – with a must-win home World Cup two and a half years away – were going to appoint anyone without previous senior international experience.

England are the best Test match side in women’s rugby, and that’s been acknowledged by the appointment of a hugely experienced Test match coach.

Just as Ronan O’Gara’s coaching ascendancy has profited from his worldwide mission to expose himself to first-rate set-ups, Yapp will be a much stronger candidate for that top job after taking the Aussies to a World Cup.

It’s hard to see anyone stopping Caslick and co. scorching their way to gold at the Paris Olympics next year, and – all of a sudden – it’s exhilarating to consider just how disruptively excellent the Wallaroos could be by 2025, guided there by someone who’s captained one World Cup side to a final, developed some of the lynchpins of the most successful team in the sport’s history, and proven that – even in adversity – she’s a force to be reckoned with.

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Jon 1 days ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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