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Tamara Taylor: Growing the game in Scandinavia and life as Sweden head coach

By Matt Merritt
PLAN-LES-OUATES, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 12: #1 Tove Viksten of Sweden and #6 Maja Meuller of Sweden celebrate a try during the Rugby Europe Women's Trophy match between Switzerland and Sweden at Centre sportif des Cherpines on March 12, 2022 in Plan-les-Ouates, Switzerland. (Photo by RvS.Media/Basile Barbey/Getty Images)

How does a World Cup winner, a former Saracen, and a champion for northern rugby in England end up as head coach of the Swedish national team? From what Tamara Taylor has told RugbyPass it is a story all too familiar to anyone who has ever been involved in the sport.

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“Claire Cruickshank was the head coach. She took over in, I think, 2018. The team were in the European trophy at the time,” Taylor explained.

“She was pretty much straight into taking charge of a game, so she rang me and asked if I could just come and help me out with the forwards. ‘It’s really hard to split myself between forwards and backs, I don’t know the players yet….’ So I was like, ‘yeah, no problem. I’d love to work with you.”

“I’ve known Claire since my university days, she was at Northumbria Uni and I was at Newcastle. We played against each other there… She played for Scotland when I was playing for England as well. So yes, we have a long history. Mainly of a rivalry on the pitch but it was really nice to coach with her.”

As is so often the case, whether it’s chipping in at a local club or at the international level, a little bit of helping out evolved into a regular role.

The former England forward said: “So I went and just helped out a couple of times. And then a couple of times turned into ‘Oh, can you come to this camp? Can you come to this camp?’ From 2019 until December last year, that’s what I was doing.

“I was going to pretty much all of the camps as an assistant coach, doing the forwards doing defence. And then Claire took a step back in December. I took over as interim head coach for that period because we were coming into the European Championships having been promoted. It was a bit of a baptism of fire, straight in there in January, I took the camp then and I’m still in the role… So that’s how I ended up as head coach.”

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Long-time followers of the women’s game will know that Sweden have some history. They have appeared in World Cup competition, most recently in 2010, and some of their top talents have found their way into the Premier 15s in recent years too.

“I used to play rugby with Ulrika Andersson Hall, who played fly-half,” Taylor said.

“She captained Sweden at that tournament so there are a lot of the girls who recognise the history of having their team play at the highest level. For a small country, their women have always punched well above their weight on the international stage. It’s a real privilege to be able to work with those athletes and those players.

“To tell them ‘I know what your history is’. They’ve already done such a great job of qualifying and playing at a high level, what can we do to continue that and, as the game becomes more professional, help to try and bridge a little bit of that gap. That financial gap is quite a big problem, but at we can try and help support the team to keep building on the progress that they’ve already started,” she added.

Recent Leicester Tigers signing Amanda Swartz captains Sweden and will be well known to Loughborough Lighting fans as a former player, as is back row Maja Mueller who has also played for the Loughborough side.

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Long-time Saracens fans will remember Emilie Hellgren and Harlequins Women have fielded Tove Viksten and Victoria Petersson in recent seasons.

Add in Matilda Mahlberg, the lock who was a key piece in Cheltenham Tigers’ Championship winning season and a smattering of players in Ireland, Spain and France and it’s clear that Taylor and her team are working hard to ensure their players get the best experience possible.

That experience has paid off with Sweden finding their way back to Rugby Europe’s Championship alongside Spain and the Netherlands. While Sweden lost both their matches, their growth through the tournament was a huge positive for Taylor and her team.

“We knew it was going to be a massive step up. We had a great year last year in the trophy competition, won all of our games. We started growing the squad as well, started getting some more players capped. Getting that international experience – which is important when you’re only playing a couple of games a season – it’s important to try and make sure that people are getting that little bit of a step up from club to international level,” Taylor said.

“So that was a really good year. It’s always difficult when you then get promoted and you’re at the bottom of the tree now and you have to climb again. The other thing for us this season is we played in February. If you think about Swedish or Scandinavian rugby, that’s completely out of season.

“The girls finished playing club rugby in October. That was the last time we could be outside on the grass in Sweden. We’re trying to prepare indoors for internationals which are played outside. From a timing point of view, that international window was not super helpful for us last year.

“We had a great training game against the British Army in January, which was really important for our preparation to play. Our warm-ups were against Portugal in November, and then the Army on the first weekend in January.

“Without those two games from a preparation point of view, we would have been miles behind where we were. We’re inside in a wrestling room. And then you come and you play against the Netherlands. I think anyone that saw that game, would have seen how the girls grew over the 80 minutes.

“You would expect people to maybe tail off in that last 20 minutes but actually, that’s when I think everyone was like ‘Oh right. Yeah. Okay, we’re back on the field.’ It’s frustrating because it would have been nice to have been able to prepare differently, but you play the hand that you’re dealt I think what was really pleasing was how close that game against the Netherlands was.

“I think the girls saw how on a different day we could have won that. You want those really competitive games where we don’t know what the result is going to be. Unfortunately, the way the Six Nations is at the minute, bar one or two games, you know who’s coming out on top. For me, I just don’t think that’s very exciting.”

It’s a valid point and a complaint that a number of people have made about the Women’s Six Nations. While the results might be similarly one-sided in the Championship, the teams are less well known which gives the competition a sense of wonder that is currently missing from the top-tier event. With Portugal joining the competition next year it will be even more open and, crucially, will allow even more teams to develop and grow.

While her focus is on Sweden, Taylor keeps a weather eye on the Red Roses too, and she shared her thoughts on their new coaching set-up.

“We’ve never had a transition coach before so it was quite a surprise to see that as a role that was named a bit. From the outside, I guess out of the blue… A cool job though, and what an important role really!

“We’ve had some really good under-20s players – and it’s the same in the men’s game – we don’t always get that same transition of the boys or the girls coming from age grade into senior rugby, whether that’s community or right up to international so that could prove to be a really vital role.

“It would be very interesting to see what the stats are on how many players have gone through under 20s versus how many have just come straight out of the Premier 15s. Someone must have that number somewhere.”

“I don’t think anyone expected John Mitchell to be named head coach. I only know him through my work in coach development. He’s put on some sessions for us and has always been great with the people he’s coached in those sessions. He’s a very quirky, different kind of character, but I like that it’s not the same old, same old. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how he gets on with the girls.

“I don’t know how much work he’s done in the women’s game. Lou Meadows coming in too, she’s a very experienced coach, who only just got the under-20s job and then straight away promoted up into the seniors. So, a really exciting opportunity for her as well to see how she gets on. Lots to watch and, although with Louis Deacon in there, we have some continuity, it’s good to see a lot of change too. Let’s see how it goes!”

Who knows, if Sweden can continue their rise, we might see Taylor’s name in the mix for the next vacancy to arise.

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