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The Women's Rugby Association: A turning point for the game?

By Stella Mills
Harlequins Women celebrate after Emily Scott of Harlequins Women bursts through to score a try during the Women's Allianz Premier 15s match between Saracens Women and Harlequins Women at StoneX Stadium on December 12, 2021 in Barnet, England. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

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It seems like Christmas has come early this year for all those involved in the women’s game. After what seems like months of difficult news, and consistently asking for more, we finally have a welcomed step forward in the game.

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Former England international Danielle Waterman (Nolli) is driving the change, along with three others, to create an independent entity dedicated entirely to protecting and providing support to Premier 15’s players.

The Women’s Rugby Association will provide a collective voice for players, whilst supporting them both on and off the pitch advocating for increased medical and welfare provisions for players across the Premier 15s league.

Ten months ago, after learning that Bristol Bear’s player Alisha Butchers was left to self-fund surgery for an injury she sustained whilst training, Nolli decided she needed to take action. She wasn’t alone, as current co-founders Emma Lax, Polly Barnes and Holly Hammill all felt the same. And so, the Women’s Rugby Association was born.

Nolli opened up the conversation by explaining: “We wrongly assumed this support was already in place for players, but it wasn’t.”

Although the association is independent, which will no doubt be a key factor to its success, it has already gained buy in from key organisations in the women’s rugby space such as the RFU and club owners which will be important if the group is to achieve real change.

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Speaking on specifics, Nolli explained the body would take up an educational role with players, ensuring support is available for all those who join the association, which can be done for as little as £1 per season.

She continued to say: “It’s the questions that you might think are silly to ask that can eat away at you as a player, if we can help to answer these, and alleviate some stress whilst providing real support, we will have done something right.”

The interesting bit for me, is the level of legal support being pledged alongside this. If we have learnt anything from the exponential growth of women’s rugby, it’s that contacts are becoming more common. After it was revealed months ago that players were crying out for help due to a lack of club wide support, this news can only be a welcomed positive for them.

On the announcement, recent World Rugby player of the year nominee Poppy Cleall commented: The Premier 15s has been calling out for support and help for a long time now. We are reaching a turning point for women’s rugby in England with contracts and higher expectations of players, you can’t ignore the wellbeing of an athlete and lack of off field support based just on the presence of an international cap, or lack of.”

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The WRA has support of various partners including Sports specific law firm Morgan Sports Law, creative agency Cake, and Data management system Riskhub.

With contracts come lawyers, and you don’t get much more sports focused than Morgan Sports Law, a firm dedicated specifically to protecting athletes’ rights. It’s a shame that this support wasn’t readily available from the offset, and that unfortunately players have had to go through huge issues with club negotiations before this, but in the same take, it’s a fantastic and welcomed move forward, which has already been well received.

It is clear to see the right steps are being taken in laying the foundations for this association. Many have noticed the nominated player board has not yet been named, and it is for good reason.

Nolli explained: “We didn’t just want to rush into the process of naming an advisory board for the sake of it. Care must be taken to ensure the right people are elected to represent the players, it can’t just fall to the loudest characters or the ones with the biggest profile.”

Representation is important, but the right form of representation must be a non-negotiable here. As Nolli alluded to, it’s important to get the right people on board to discuss and advocate on some potentially controversial issues. The group must ensure they are careful with selection, and that players have fully brought into the idea for it to be a success.

The power of collective voices cannot be understated, we have just this week seen 62 prominent figures in Irish rugby come together calling for meaningful change following the IRFU’s behaviour in recent months. Weeks before, we saw over 100 former Welsh internationals band together to lobby the WRU, with great success. It’s clear to see that collective voices work and have the potential to insight real change. The power has now shifted away from these unions, and rightly into the players hands.

The independence of the Women’s Rugby Association means it will no longer be left to individuals in the game to risk their careers and futures to call things out. Now, players have a whole community of likeminded individuals behind them, and with that comes huge levels of security and power.

The association’s creation comes just months after the formation of a similar outfit in New Zealand, with Women in Rugby Aotearoa. The body has since been responsible for holding organisations to account by issuing reactive collective statement in response to the goings on of women’s rugby. Hopefully, with this added security, players will feel like they no longer have to have these conversations or thoughts in private and are able to fight to get the best level of treatment that they deserve, which will only serve to improve the game far beyond the Premier 15s.

I would argue that we are now, with the formation of this association, at a turning point for women’s rugby. We have all the tools we need to succeed, it’s just about putting the work in from this point onwards to ensure we are sustaining that success, on a global level in the women’s game.

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