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'It's an easy ten-hour flight': Stories of overseas Premier 15s players

By Lucy Lomax
Exeter Chiefs' Daleaka Menin in action during the Allianz Premier 15s match between Harlequins Women on September 18, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

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Would you move halfway across the world to pursue a lifelong dream? Even if it meant leaving your family and friends behind or spending Christmas thousands of miles away from home alone in a rented room? What if it meant seeing your team mates more than you saw your husband?

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For most overseas players in the Premier 15s, that’s the reality of their decision to move to England, to play high quality rugby, all in aid of being the best versions of themselves and making it to a World Cup.

The debate of moving to the UK is one USA Eagles international Kristine Sommer, formerly of Harlequins and now at Gloucester-Hartpury, knows all too well. “I’m playing in England but still work full time remotely for a company in the States, so my hours are from 3:30 in the afternoon to 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. I acknowledge that this is probably my last year of being abroad and potentially playing international rugby,” Sommer states matter-of-factly.

“We choose to be here but this is the reality that we’re living. We do get a stipend from the club, some players get housing support and match fees, and on paper that looks good but it’s not enough and you have to sacrifice all these other things to do what we’re doing.

“There’s 17 USA internationals in the Premiership, and it’s really hard for the older ones, we’re always thinking how do I transition after this is done? A handful have quit their jobs to be over in the UK as they can’t substantiate full time remote work, so that’s hard for them and being semi-professional here is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills.”

Sommer goes on to explain more about her personal situation which makes her choice to move overseas even more remarkable.

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“My husband is in Seattle, we got married in June last year and we bought a house right before I moved to Harlequins, so he keeps up our home and it’s an easy ten hour flight but it’s hard seeing everything happening at home and then you leave it to grow your career, but you’re kind of living both lives and with the time difference and working, most the time I feel like a zombie!”

USA Eagles captain Kate Zackary who plies her trade for Exeter Chiefs spoke to RugbyPass+ last year and said: “It’s known within the women’s game that you’re probably going to have to uproot if you want to pursue your dreams of becoming a better player. It’s a big decision, changing lifestyles, jobs, moving, decisions to retire or start families. Players want to put themselves in the best position possible ahead of the World Cup.”

So are the sacrifices really worth it, and why has the Premier 15s attracted so many from North America?

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“Most players are just hoping this environment will give them a spot on the World Cup team, that’s the reason most of us are here. Also, there is no rugby in the States and this is a year we need to do whatever we can to get as many games and as many touches on the ball, and just play rugby” said Sommers.

“They keep postponing the league in America. The States is so large and for the Women’s Premier League there are ten teams and you have to fly to different states to play, so it’s not financially feasible and all of those costs go on the players.

“Playing for Seattle we had to fly to the East Coast multiple times in the season, which was too expensive, or we had to travel over the Canadian border, and with Covid the borders closed so it got harder to cross casually on the weekends with 30 rugby players.”

In England we take for granted the fact that the longest journey players may have to make is DMP Durham Sharks to Exeter Chiefs (a drive of 5 and a half hours), however, this would be considered a short jaunt when playing in the American or Canadian leagues.

Canadian international DaLeaka Menin, who joined Loughborough Lightning in 2017 when the Premier 15s first began, who now plays for Exeter Chiefs, describes her decision to move across the Atlantic.

“When I moved over, I’d just finished university and was told about this league England had just put together and I was quite hesitant at first. It was just supposed to be a year’s experience and see what happens but this is now my fourth year!

“There is no constant league you can play in in Canada. There is too much snow in winter with nothing beyond the summer season and with how widespread we are, there’s maybe four internationals scattered throughout the league so the level is quite a bit lower than it is in England.

“Deciding to come across was a really big move for me. My parents have struggled with it as you’re not just moving down the road, it’s across the ocean and it’s not easy to get there and it’s costly. The first two years I was over here I paid for my own visa and did part-time work in 12 to 24 hour shifts in between training with Loughborough. I try not to think of it as sacrifices as they’re still choices.

“For my first three years I didn’t go home for Christmas and when I went back this year I realised how much I’ve missed it. Friends and family are far away but they have been really supportive as they know this is what I want to do and I’m stepping forward in my development as an athlete. My mum always asks when I am coming home to start a career.

“I am now a contracted athlete with Exeter and get a little bit of money but I’m not making foundations for anything career based and the money isn’t as sustainable as I wish it was. The club have provided me with accommodation, and I receive a monthly amount of money which helps me pay for food and my phone bill and I’m not struggling to survive but I’m always thinking do I stay another year, or do I start thinking about what I’m going to do once rugby finishes? And I’m only 26!

“I’m also not legally able to work for any company other than Exeter Chiefs which puts a financial pressure on girls coming over. For me to work here I have to work under the umbrella of Exeter Chiefs- that’s just how the league is set up at the moment.

“Playing overseas is something that isn’t pushed on us internationals, but it’s encouraged by the coaches. Some of the girls that speak French, it’s more of a draw to play in France as it’s their first language.

“In my opinion the Premier 15s is the best league you can play in and it’s boosting rugby in America and Canada because we have so many internationals here, it’s really helping to grow the game.”

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