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'Let's hear it for the boys': Men's involvement in Premier 15s shows growth of the league

By Claire Thomas
Dave Ward, Head Coach of Bristol Bears Women, speaks to their players after the final whistle of the Allianz Premier 15s Semi Final match between Exeter Chiefs Women and Bristol Bears Women at Sandy Park on May 22, 2022 in Exeter, England. (Photo by Ryan Hiscott - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

When the theme for this column came to me with the sort of satisfying thump which usually accompanies a Gabrielle Vernier tackle, I was surprised. As someone who aims to point all available spotlights on incredible women in sport, it threw me – but also felt like an important thing to talk about. This week, as Deniece Williams so joyfully sang: let’s hear it for the boys.

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Sport is sport, regardless of the genders of those at play, and should be an inclusive space in which anyone can contribute and thrive. We’re all pushing this boulder up the hill together, after all. You’d struggle to find a men’s team without influential and talented women present, and the same can be said – inverted – within the Allianz Premier 15s. There are some exceptional blokes involved, and I was really struck by that on Saturday – at the Alpas Arena, as Gloucester-Hartpury found a formidable groove after the break to put 26 unanswered points on last year’s semi-finalists, Bristol Bears.

Women’s rugby is enjoying an inexorable rise, which – naturally – attracts more and more men. Fans: hooked by an enthralling World Cup. Coaches: eager to work with elite athletes within increasingly professional set ups. Support staff: suddenly required to cement those gains, and catalyse further growth. Media: drawn by the magnificent stories, and feeding the ever more voracious appetite for women’s rugby.

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Earlier this year, Wayne Smith won World Rugby’s Coach of the Year accolade – having been parachuted into an ailing Black Ferns programme, where he masterminded a renaissance which has already become the stuff of legend. New Zealand edged one of the best teams there’s ever been in an equally superlative-defying final, and the man behind it had turned their sinking ship around in six months flat.

He speaks passionately about the experience – one he ‘never thought [he] would enjoy so much’ – and the love he has for his squad, whose sense of fun, ambition, and refusal to take anything for granted have clearly struck a chord.

The head coaches at Saturday’s West Country derby were similarly effusive men: Dave Ward and Sean Lynn. Ward notched almost 300 professional appearances as a player, before taking up a coaching role at Championship side, Ampthill. He joined Bears last season – promptly catapulting them up the rankings. Eighth to third in the space of a single campaign, and only denied a spot in the final by the fact that Jennine Detiveaux is harder to stop than an elephant on ice skates.

It wasn’t just league success, though: Ward worked closely with Ioan Cunningham to support his Welsh contingent (just look at Elinor Snowsill and Keira Bevan’s recent flourishing), and hosted coaching clinics for aspiring female coaches in the area.

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When I asked him about Smith’s appointment, he was unequivocal about its significance. ‘It’s fantastic for the game,’ he observed, ‘but also demonstrates how willing he was to take on that role: he really put his reputation on the line, and in front of the 42,000 people watching that final.’

Ward signed a three-year contract extension this summer, and was characteristically enthusiastic about the commitment. ‘Everyone was asking “what’s your next move?”, and I said “my next move is to win the Premiership with Bristol Bears Women.” Everyone assumes that you come into the women’s game to get your first taste of coaching before moving on…Actually, you see people staying in it. If I’m being honest, my next move would be an international coaching job in the women’s game in six or seven years’ time.’

Before succeeding Susie Appleby at Gloucester-Hartpury, Welsh age group representative Sean Lynn was Head Coach at Hartpury University – guiding a cherry-coloured juggernaut to three national titles. He’s now Head of Women’s Rugby at the big red conveyor belt of superstars known colloquially as ‘the circus’ and is clearly onto a good thing: you don’t entice over Sarah Beckett, Sam Monaghan, Alex Matthews, and Maud Muir without creating a fairly special environment.

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In Lynn’s corner on Saturday was his own successor – Dan Murphy – who earned almost 150 appearances for Premiership clubs, and is balancing university coaching commitments with working with Gloucester-Hartpury Women’s forwards. They’re still missing a few of their most formidable piano pushers, but have already been marmalising at scrum time, nurturing a tsunami of a rolling maul, and proving gritty breakdown competitors across the park. Murphy’s impact is undeniable, and he is relishing his involvement. The man only ceased barking orders from the side-line this weekend for long enough to ask me who’d been awarded player of the match. His investment was clear: his pride in Sam Monaghan (who was talismanic) evident.

As the tussle for that trophy grows more ferocious, so does the desire for roles within the league. Coaches from the men’s game want in, and it’s a two-way street: the competition benefits from their experiences in a realm which has been professional for decades, and they get to be involved in a brilliant tournament.

Ward confirms this: ‘if I’d asked my assistant coach, Tom Luke, to come and do the same job four years ago, he’d probably have said ‘no’. Now, because of the skills involved at Prem level, it’s something he’s jumped on board with, and absolutely loves. Then, when I was in New Zealand [watching wife Abbie and the Red Roses on their route to the final], Mark Irish took over, and loved it so much that he’s excited to get involved again. He’s come in, expecting one thing, seen another, and is now asking when he can come back to work with the girls.’

Smith, enjoying his summer break whilst adding ‘World Coach of the Year 2022’ to his LinkedIn; Lynn, Ward, Luke, and Murphy – implausibly, in shorts – marshalling their troops on a brisk day in Hartpury with an impressive win; and a notable man on the whistle, too.

Ian Tempest, a Premiership centurion of a referee, had come over before kick-off to introduce himself, and had a genuine kid-at-Christmas energy about him. We discussed how excited he was by the appointment – part of the RFU’s drive to have their best officials covering both men’s and women’s premierships – and how he was hoping there’d be plenty more. His influence was immediate, most notably in the marching back of Bears by a full twenty metres after some insubordination from Rownita Marston, and he ran a tight ship and quick game. In his post-match interview, Lynn noted that his players had come off the field waxing lyrical about Tempest’s work in the middle. Splendid. More of that, please.

Throw in that we enjoyed the ever-humorous and knowledgeable Nick Heath on the mic, whilst award-winning photographer Ben Lumley captured the day stunningly, and you’ve men at the very top of their game involved.

One more to mention, and which gets my ‘Most Heart-Warming Moment’ gong for Round Two (Round One is, obviously, that clip of Lucy Burgess), was being behind the dug outs at the hour mark when a mini Mo Hunt superfan arrived. With her? Her father: England and Bath’s Tom Dunn. Hunt took a moment out of her eternally-passionate cheerleading to chat to Dunn Junior – who, by all accounts, loves to visit her favourite scrum-half on game day, and was immediately promised a photo at full time. ‘Chapeau’ to Dunn for obliging his daughter there: it can’t have been easy watching her cheer on Bath’s arch rivals…

There’s a colossal amount to say about the women at these clubs, in the stands, covering the fixture, and out on the pitch: of course there is. I suspect the remainder of these columns will be all about their ferocious prowess and this best-ever season. It felt important, though, to acknowledge this particular indicator of how far the Premier 15s has come. As Ward says: ‘I think the men involved in the league just enjoy working with these incredible women: they want to get better, and they progress so fast. Their commitment has never been in doubt, and now there’s such quality on show: the product is the key.’

He’s spot-on, and we’re lucky to have him – and all those from the men’s game who have immersed themselves in this magnetic league. The Premier 15s gets better and busier by the round. The more, the merrier, I say.

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