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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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Leaving Wasps and the Ealing adventure: 'By stepping down they've realised what is necessary'

By Lucy Lomax
Getty Images.

Giselle Mather has been the heartbeat of Wasps Women since she joined in 2016. Ask any player or staff member and you’ll hear how she goes the extra mile, covering a lot of ground within her job scope, working long hours and at times even driving the team mini bus. However, in search of a new challenge, the club stalwart is now preparing to move down the road to take up post as Ealing Trailfinder’s Director of Women’s Rugby.

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When we speak, for once the 1994 World Cup winner isn’t ferrying between her various tasks at Twyford Avenue, Wasps training ground, but taking time off to enjoy the wonderful weather and summer of women’s sport we have been treated to in the UK. She is still keeping busy, but admits that down time was required before starting her role at Ealing on September 1st.

“I needed time off because I was absolutely exhausted, and they wouldn’t have got the best of me if I’d got straight from Wasps,” said Mather. “I finished up at Wasps and have a month to press the pause button. It’s been busy in a nice way- I’ve done a few speaking arrangements, got away and been to see some live sport at the Commonwealth Games.”

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When asked if nostalgic about her time at Wasps and the legacy she hopes to leave, Mather has a measured response.

“With the Premier 15s, I’m proud to say we’ve been part of the women’s sport revolution- looking at all women’s sports at the moment, they’re thriving!

“There’s still a heck of a long way to go but it’s now not weird to see women’s sport on television. The youngsters growing up see women’s sport on the TV and it’s the norm.

“The difference in what I did at Wasps back when the Premier 15s started in 2017 to what I was doing at the end of my time is ridiculous! The standard and the product is so much better and soon we’ll all be bidding to play in the league which is only going to get bigger and better with more investment and resources.

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“I set about doing my job as best as I could and making Wasps what I believe Wasps should be. I’m a very proud Wasp, my father played for them, I coached them back in 2002-2005 and that’s my expectation that we were going to be a competitive side, and give or take a few injuries here and there we could have even got to a couple of semi-finals!

“As it turns out we didn’t, but that is competition and that’s sport for you. I’m proud to have contributed to what the women’s rugby scene is now and I’m proud of my players who contributed so much and just got on with it. However, I believe the club is in need of a refresh and leaving my role is the last piece of the jigsaw.”

Although not officially confirmed by the club at this time, Wasps Women are expected to move up to Coventry Arena where their male counterparts are based for the 2023/24 season.

“When the club move up to Coventry, they’ll be operating out of facilities they should be operating out of and need to be operating out of to keep up with the step change of the Allianz Premiership.

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“The club hasn’t officially announced the move yet and it does create instability because similar to myself, the players might want answers or they might not want to move or they might want to move now rather than wait.”

With the lack of focus provided from the club around the move, Mather admits it fed into her decision to leave.

“There were several reasons; I needed a bit more direction as to what was going to happen around me and my family with the move and it wasn’t quite there yet. My family wanted to stay in London so that was that from a personal perspective.

“From a professional perspective up until February of this year I was the only full-time member of staff at Wasps and the Premier 15s is too big for that and the scale of the job that needed to be done, and I began to feel that I wasn’t doing things at the level I felt I’m capable of doing them and I needed a bit more support and little bit more resource.

“By stepping down they’ve realised that this is necessary and now it’s happening which is great to see. There are full time members of staff coming in and various other roles that are going to be enhanced and sometimes you have to move on to create these opportunities. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just how life turned out. It needed more resource and it’s got more.”

Last season Wasps finished fifth in the league, the first time the club missed out on a semi-final place in the Premier 15s era. Injuries plagued the club, from their three contracted England players Claudia MacDonald, Bryony Cleall and Abby Dow to their international sevens players, with all but Ellie Boatman out for extended periods of time during the season.

Player injuries are part and parcel of the game, but with large numbers of international players moving on from Wasps to elsewhere in the league this summer, Mather takes issue with the current lack of structure in place when former Academy players move club.

“The landscape of the women’s game and how things work isn’t very cool at the moment. A lot of players are moving around and all that’s happening is they’re just changing the colour of their shirt they’re playing in but what we need is players developing and coming through.

“In the men’s game, there are systems in place to protect clubs who are working and developing their youngsters. There are compensation schemes that the men have to pay if an academy produces a player and another team wants to take them, they have to pay compensation and that doesn’t happen in our game and that’s not cool.

“If a lot of money gets offered to a young player, then they go and that’s not just the reason they’ll move but that’s the story of our game going from amateur to professional at the moment. The game will go through a lot of changes and there are repercussions and unintended consequences and that’s just part of it as it transfers from just a sport to a business. Player movement is happening a lot at the moment and it’s a bit of a free for all.”

Despite the experience of losing players to other clubs, over the next 12 months Mather will be operating at the other end of the spectrum and looking to recruit from across West London and further afield in her role at Ealing.

Ealing have stated their intention to bid for a place in the Premier 15s when the door opens ahead of the 2023/2024 season, yet at present they don’t have a women’s team. The club has invested heavily in player development pathways instead, and it is something Mather feels equally as passionate about.

“The whole vibe and energy at Ealing is very ambitious, very forward thinking, they want to get their men’s side into the Gallagher Premiership and the women’s side into the Allianz Premier 15s and that’s an exciting place to be.

“They have very good pathways in place already, from the programme that’s run by Ealing at Brunel University where you get to study and get your education as well as play rugby, and the Under 16-18 programme at Henley College, as well as other Places of Development (PoDs) around the Ealing area. All of that is already there and to lead the programme and rebuild a side to bring on English talent, that’s something the club and I are very excited about and they’re resourcing it very, very well.

“To build a side afresh with the knowledge and passion that I’ve got for the women’s game, I think it’s going to be a very exciting adventure.”

The fact that Exeter Chiefs did the same from scratch when they entered the league in 2020 and consequently got to last season’s final proves it can be done and done well, and Mather admits she has spoken to Chiefs Head Coach Susie Appleby for advice.

“Exeter have set a precedent and proved that you don’t have to have a squad sitting there when you make a bid. It’s very inspirational what’s been achieved there, however, I’ll probably go down a slightly different track and will definitely have some overseas international players but I’m also very keen to invest my time in England’s youngsters because that’s what a lot of players need is the opportunity to play.

“The challenge will be to get the green light to enter the Premier 15s and fulfil the minimum standards and we only have a short period of time to put something together and explain how our programme will operate and what’s encouraging is that every team will have to showcase this to the RFU.”

Mather expresses her belief that the league doesn’t necessarily need additional teams to enter (a view shared by Rachael Burford in her recent column), but that it’s more about quality over quantity.

“The league needs clubs willing to invest. You look back when Richmond and Firwood Waterloo were dropped and Exeter and Sale came in and it’s very sad when clubs drop down but look what Exeter and Sale have put into the league. Again, it’s about sport becoming a business and some decisions have to be made that aren’t necessarily popular at the time.

“The league needs that investment and the ability to use that investment well, with the facilities and staff running the club. Take football for example, Birmingham City dropped out of the Women’s Super League and were replaced by Manchester United because they could invest and they’ve produced a fantastic product. You look at what Exeter did, they invested, shook up the league and made a final, and as a result everyone else is stepping up.”

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