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Swarming together: 'We had six registered players when Giselle left'

By Lucy Lomax
Wasps Women pose for a squad photo in Henley, Arden on pre season training camp. Summer 2022. Photo credit: JMP

It’s been well documented in the men’s game, the turbulent times in the Premiership and the entering into administration of Wasps and Worcester this autumn. However, despite the sinking ships of both men’s clubs, paddling alongside, managing to stay afloat in a considerably smaller boat, or let’s call it a dinghy, despite the relentless storm and knock-on repercussions, is their respective women’s teams.

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For one of these clubs, Wasps Women, there has been a double whammy of punches to the gut over the past five months, which meant at one point in time over the summer, the team had only six players with penned contracts.

Enter Liz Crake. The back-row, turned front rower who has been at the club for almost a decade and stuck with the black and golds through thick and thin. When it became clear the situation at the club was heading south, instead of jumping ship she stuck her hand up for the captaincy role and sees the current period of turmoil as a chance to give back to a club that has nurtured and developed her.

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Crake was visibly still hurting when asked on our Zoom call how she first reacted to news of revered head coach Giselle Mather leaving, followed shortly by the men’s team going into administration.

“It was really emotional for me, it’s hard to put into words,” said the 28-year old. “I’ve been at the club since I was 19 so it was tough to take.

“In the very first week, when the men’s club went into administration, it was a week-by-week situation, as we lost all funding from Wasps RFC, and we were questioning and asking, are we going to have enough to survive?

“We put our trust in those behind the scenes who have worked really hard to get us enough money to continue and reach the minimum operating standards of the Premiership. They’ve raised a decent amount of money which will hopefully get us through the remainder of the season.”

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However, as you can imagine, compromises have had to be made given the club’s financial situation.

“We’re no longer paid as players,” admits Crake, “but the majority of our squad have full time jobs outside of rugby or are students and it was about a little bit of extra pocket money.

“My concern at the start was, how do we function if we don’t have a full-time coach, physio or S&C support? It was those wages that mattered. To suddenly have that money taken away, it becomes very difficult because how do you do analysis? How do you get feedback on your clips? We had staff members leaving their jobs to become full time and suddenly those salaries were at risk.

“For me it felt like we were facing two different battles; at the beginning of pre-season we had a huge number of players depart as happens with any season, then when Giselle left we lost more, and then going into administration on the men’s side, we lost another round of players.”

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It’s testament to the people at the club that Wasps were able to pull themselves through despite losing an exceptionally influential head coach and almost their entire playing squad. To find funding and continue to compete at the highest level of the women’s game is nothing short of remarkable.

Asked whether there were hard feelings about some key players leaving last minute with the Premier 15s season about to kick off, as with all good captains, Crake was balanced and mature in her response:

“When those people left it was hard. As players and individuals I have a lot of respect for them, and we’ve been team mates for years, but what is difficult is when it’s a week before the Prem started and we lost our lineout caller and one of our tens.

“I get why they made those decisions and their reasoning but where it leaves us as a club is very hard to take and made it no easier.”

Talking of making things no easier, last season, there had long been murmurs around the club’s move up to Coventry to join the men’s side. This added another layer of instability to a side based in Action, west London. Former head coach Mather even stated the uncertainty surrounding the relocation was part of the reason for her leaving. With many players based in London for their jobs, could this have been yet another reason for the mass exodus over the summer?

“I think that could have been a factor for some players,” said Crake, “but for a lot of them it was the right decision prior to Giselle leaving, with the likes of Claudia (MacDonald), Maud (Muir), Cliodhna (Moloney), and others who had already made those decisions towards the end of last season and was purely for their rugby. What other clubs can offer over us is a factor for players that rely on rugby more for a career.

“The move to Coventry was on the cards as that’s where the men were, but that wasn’t meant to be put into place until the 2023/24 season, so I don’t think it’s necessarily that.”

Despite players side stepping left, right and centre to other clubs, Wasps have relied on the emergence of young talent at Twyford Avenue. Because of this, Crake has been reminded of her early days and of the reason why she’s stayed loyal to the club.

“With all the players that left I immediately put my hand up to LJ (Lewis, Wasps head coach), and said I wanted to be captain. There’s a board at the club with every captain’s name and it’s a huge sense of personal pride to have mine up there. When I graduated, I had to move to Yeovil down in Dorset for my job, and Giselle was so understanding. The players also had faith in me that despite not being able to make it to mid-week training, I was putting the time in when I could and they supported me when I needed it.

“Therefore, now the tables have turned, I’ll give Wasps the space to fix what needs fixing, and try and develop as much as I can.

“With the players that we’ve been left with, we have a lot of developing athletes and cliché as it sounds, it’s a reverse of where I was when I first started at the club and how I developed under different captains, so to be that person for these players is a privilege.”

With an almost completely new team sheet and more experienced players moving on, the results for Wasps this season as you would expect have been hard reading, losing 62-0 away at Ashton Gate against Bristol and most recently having Gloucester-Hartpury put 67 points on them at home.

However, Crake remains matter of fact. “We’re not under any illusions that the season is going to be easy for us. We don’t expect it to be easy and we don’t want it to be easy, that’s a bit boring.

“Our programme has been trimmed down and things like travel and hotel stays have had to be adjusted. Realistically as long as we have enough for coaches to be there on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and our medical staff, then, at the end of the day, it’s not too different to what it was like a few seasons ago.”

Crake continues to sum up Wasps’ predicament articulately.

“As a smaller club who have lost all their funding, it’s frustrating. We’ve gone from play-off spot contenders every season to second bottom of the league, we’re not getting paid and that’s rubbish and a harsh comparison from before, but having said that, I’m now surrounded by players who play for the love of the game, and it is something that bonds the team and gels us together.”

Despite the lack of certainty, you have to respect Wasps. It’s been a season like no other where they’ve been hit with more blows than any team deserves. However, as the season progresses, keep an eye on this group, who despite the hardship and upheaval, they haven’t lost their passion, pride or, ultimately, their sting.

Speaking to the club’s General Manager Kasey Allen, RugbyPass understands that amateur club Wasps FC has funded the women’s team over the past few seasons and has continued to do so this season. In additional to the set amount received by every Premier 15s club from the RFU, the club has also secured funding through sponsorship and ownership of their Twyford Avenue venue and the commercialisation of this, plus through using the network of the Wasps Women’s Legends. Supplementary money which had started to come through for certain roles at the club from Wasps RFC (the men’s side) at the beginning of the summer, has since ceased.

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