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Is professionalism the next step forward for the Premier 15s?

By Lucy Lomax

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As the talent groomed in the English club game shines through on the international stage this autumn, the Premier 15s league and specifically the investment from the RFU, has been praised with bolstering English grown talent, and drip feeding the currently unstoppable Red Roses side.

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In women’s sport we’re never happy to stand still, or we shouldn’t be. So, we ask the question: where does the already successful league go next?

The word ‘professionalism’ has been on the lips of players, fans, coaches and journalists for a few years now, but as the league continues into its fifth season and gets more well known, competitive and team’s strength in depth grows, it becomes more and more pertinent- is professionalism around the corner?

You can’t mention professionalism without mentioning the salary cap which at present sits as a soft cap at £120,000 per Premier 15s club, doubled from the initial £60,000 cap put in place by the RFU in 2020 to ensure the process of paying the players was done gradually and the league remained competitive. The cap limit for next season is currently under discussion.

Two women who know the English club game inside out, Giselle Mather, Wasps Women Head Coach and Worcester Warriors Women Head Coach Jo Yapp, believe professionalism is the way forward.

“The big issue is that the game at the moment is going professional in terms of training, but isn’t financially professional yet,” said Mather. “We can’t look at the men’s game and think it’s all perfect up there because it isn’t, everyone has their issues but we’ve got to find ways of operating at a professional level with the finances that we’ve got.”

In past seasons Mather has argued that the Premier 15s needs to be careful when it comes to professionalising the league and warned if things happening too quickly, it won’t be sustainable. The worst-case scenario would be for players to leave their day jobs and take up a playing career only to have the league revert back to amateurism, which is why Mather advocates for a softly, softly approach.

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“What I would love to see is all my athletes go semi-professional where they have two or three days of work and two or three days of rugby- I think that’s where the game is at at the moment. However, they need to be well rewarded in both avenues that they’re not scrimping because they’re only working three days. That’s where I’d love to see the women’s game go, semi-pro.”

Yapp also believes professionalism is needed in the future.

“Hopefully we will get to the point where club players can start to be professional otherwise the gulf is going to get bigger between club and country,” said the former England captain.

“What we have to try and do as a club is close that gap as it’s very clear and evident that the contracted Red Roses have been full time for a while, you can tell that by how they play and their conditioning, so for us as clubs we’re working really hard to bridge that gap. We have to keep driving to be in a position where all Premier 15s players will have the opportunity to be professional in the future.”

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Mather concurs that the spreading of international talent throughout the league, especially the full time England players is of paramount importance if we are to see an even playing field.

“As it stands the 28 England contracted athletes are shared across the clubs, some clubs have none, I have three at the moment and some clubs have up to nine, and you might say that’s not fair to start with as the RFU are paying those players and that’s being discussed as to how we can keep a level playing field across the competition.

“If the league wants a broadcast deal, it can’t have predetermined outcomes- you don’t want to know in the first three years it’s always going to be Sarries vs Quins in the final because the majority of Red Roses are in those squads.

“Wasps RFC fund my squad, the RFU finance is just to meet the minimum operating standards and we have to add to that to meet that, and that’s a good thing as it means the competition has that professional air. But currently at the club I’m the only full-time member of staff and I need my staff to be full time with me. I need some of my players to have more time where they’re not battling with work. I understand the game isn’t yet at that stage but it’s moving to it.”

Yapp agrees that allowances have to be made with where the league is currently at.

“We have England players Lydia Thompson and Alex Matthews who are full time, and we have a couple of players that we have more access to such as our Japanese fly-half Mino Yamamoto but we have the extreme of players that work full time long hours and players who are full time with rugby and we need to create a programme which supports all of them. There is only so much I can expect from players that are working full time hours.”

Dr Ali Bowes, senior lecturer in Sociology of Sport at Nottingham Trent University, who has recently written a book on the professionalism of women’s sport, is all too versed in the challenges facing female athletes and professionalism.

“Discussions around professionalisation are a real chicken and egg issue. We have seen the success of England’s squad in recent weeks as evidence of what can be achieved if women in rugby are invested in. A common critique of women’s sport at the elite level is the standard of play, and if the quality and pace of play increases, you’re going to draw in more support from fans, which results in increased revenue. But past experiences in professional women’s sport, notably domestic soccer in the USA, demonstrates that proceeding carefully is essential.

“Fundamentally, we need commercial partners who value women’s sport to invest, in order for the game to continue to grow, and to begin to see some form of return on investment that the business model of sport requires.”

So what needs to be firmly in place before a sport heads into professionalism- a broadcast deal, sponsorship, increased funding from clubs or the unions? Does it all come down to money?

“It would be naïve to think that money is not the biggest driver here, because everything that is required for the sport to grow is rooted in investment: better quality facilities, better quality coaching and sport science support, players having increased ability to commit time to performance, rest and recovery days and increased media presence (if this is not via broadcast deals).

“Support and funding from the National Governing Body is essential in the growth of the sport – again, rugby gives us some very obvious examples of the impact of this. If those in charge of the sport can demonstrate that they see it as worthy of investment, that ideology will run all the way through.”

It appears England are in an enviable position when it comes to the RFU, the Premier 15s and the Red Roses, and despite knowing changes aren’t going to happen overnight in rugby, Mather is optimistic about the future.

“The platform of women’s sport across the globe now is huge. People are watching women’s sport, it’s accessible and it’s cool to be a woman in sport. Girls are no longer looked at like they shouldn’t be playing.

“These days people celebrate athletic women and embrace women’s teams, that’s what the RFU and the Premier 15s is massively about.”

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