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Proper investment in women's rugby is about more than just money

By Jess Hayden

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The second weekend of the Women’s Six Nations had as many storylines as the first, with England leading the way and Wales struggling, not being able to secure a single point in their first two games. Last week I spoke of the failings with the women’s programme at the Welsh Rugby Union. I want to clarify in case it wasn’t clear that this is no way a criticism of the players, far from it, nor the staff who work directly with the players.

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My criticism is always directed at the board and those who control the purse strings. Unfortunately, for the second week in a row, the players have been whipped into the hurricane of social media abuse which is absolutely undeserved.

Last week I focused my attention on Wales captain Siwan Lillicrap, who this weekend was heralded as ‘super-human’ for playing on despite a painful looking ankle injury, as the Wales bench had been utilised. The thing is, Siwan isn’t super-human – nobody is. She is an incredible player, a fierce leader and a kind soul.

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But everyone has a breaking point, and the social media abuse targeted towards the Wales side needs to stop. We can call these women superheroes, but actually what these women need is recognition that they are human, and humans need rest, support and care – all of which the Wales side don’t receive in abundance from the Welsh Rugby Union.

Wales lost 45-0 to Ireland, a scoreline which came as a shock. On paper, this should have been a much closer contest, Wales and Ireland are both amateur. Where Ireland have had better preparation Wales have matched that with the number of domestic games the players have had in the Premier 15s this season.

While most of the Irish squad play their rugby in Ireland (pre-covid), 22 out of the Wales matchday squad of 23 for the Ireland fixture play their rugby in England for Premier 15s sides. They have had significantly more game time this season than Ireland, who have just a few players in the Premier 15s.

But, Ireland seem to have edged Wales in terms of preparation. Reportedly the Ireland squad has had 20 training camps to prepare as well as a number of internal competitive matches, with one insider saying: “It was basically full-time training and a professional standard.” It showed.

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Of course, preparation for one tournament is not the test of a national side. We live in a pandemic and are talking about teams who are completely amateur – it’s a hard thing to predict. Fans looking to explain the huge defeat have looked towards the development pathways in each Home Nation. It will be no surprise to anyone that England’s is by far the most advanced. After winning the 2014 Rugby World Cup, the RFU created an ‘action plan’ – investing £10m – to bring more women into rugby.

Scotland also have a fairly established and decent player pathway, according to players. In recent years, Ireland has significantly developed their player pathway to bring in talent from the grassroots sides – including a long-term player development plan and appointing former Ireland international Nora Stapleton as Women and Girls’ Development Executive.

There have been many in the grassroots women’s rugby community in Wales who have called out the WRU for being behind the other nations. A spokesperson from the WRU told me: “For a number of years we have had a development programme, playing England U18s on an annual basis, we have had regional U18 programme along with regional seniors and a Sevens U18 programme… We also announced a Talent Identification Programme prior to Covid, with Liza Burgess key to that, and thousands of girls were involved in initiatives like Rookie Rugby, along with the girls playing for Female Hubs around Wales. Obviously with Covid, there has been no rugby for male or female categories for over a year.”

However, a number of players, parents and coaches say that in practice the development pathways are still behind in Wales. Former Wales player Gem Hallett tweeted: “No U20s, no U18s, no development team, no performance pathway, but all heart! Their first taste of international experience comes from a handful of camps, then thrown into the toughest of championships. Blame the WRU, not the girls.”

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Hallett continued in a later tweet: “We have now reached peak abandonment in our game. This is a decade of decimation [by] design, by the WRU. [Rachel Taylor] leaving and these two results has to be the catalyst for change and honesty from the WRU. Supporters, the community game and former players demand it!”

Hallett calls for player pathways to be better, pointing towards the previous structure of women’s rugby in Wales that was inherited by the WRU. Hallett believes it was much stronger with better performance pathways for women. While these programmes are in place, there is a lack of leadership at board level when it comes to women’s rugby, in my opinion, with one fan calling the board “pale, stale and male.”

Perhaps a sign of the failures in Wales is that England’s player of the match was Cardiff-born Megan Jones, who first started playing rugby at Glamorgan Wanderers. I don’t comment here on Megan’s choice – but why would any player eligible for England choose Wales when the support, lifestyle, and benefits of England are so much better?

I don’t think we are far off losing a large number of the young Wales talent pool to England, if they qualify – especially if they are likely to choose English universities who feed into Premier 15s clubs, such as Loughborough. In Wales, Swansea University, Cardiff Metropolitan University and Cardiff University are the leading women’s rugby universities who have in the past acted as feeder clubs into regional sides, but they do not directly feed into the Premier 15s.

While there are options in Wales, if I was a 17-year-old Welsh girl looking to play elite rugby, I would want to move to England and as such would look at Hartpury, Gloucester, Bristol or Loughborough. That’s because age-grade rugby and the performance pathway in Wales is in desperate need of repair. Ireland showed what happens when investment is there even from amateur teams.

Italy did too – although the scoreline doesn’t quite tell that story. For the first twenty minutes, Italy not only stopped England scoring but barely let them touch the ball.

The Ireland performance for me shows that professional status is about so much more than contracts for players. It’s about buy-in at the board level, development of players, and consistent commitment to the women and girls who play rugby. Ireland has shown this – that despite no professional contracts they out-performed Wales due to much better preparation and player development.

Let this be a lesson to the WRU – investment needs to be a cultural shift in the entire organisation.

One a separate note, this is sadly my last RugbyPass column as I move to a full-time new role. I started this column in the build-up to the 2021 Rugby World Cup which has of course been postponed by a year. I felt a battle against me to persuade people to watch, but in talking to readers I realised that in general, rugby fans like rugby and the fact that women are on the pitch makes little difference.

I want to thank RugbyPass for their investment into women’s rugby and for being so supportive over the last year. It is a fantastic media platform and I’m sorry I will not be able to write my column for them anymore. I have also thoroughly enjoyed the debate and conversations I have had with readers on Twitter, which has always been respectful.

Thank you.

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Proper investment in women's rugby is about more than just money

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