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Three new WRU elite development centres: 'The sky's the limit for Welsh women’s rugby'

By Will Owen
Cardiff , United Kingdom - 25 March 2023; Wales players celebrate after the TikTok Women's Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Wales and Ireland at Cardiff Arms Park in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo By Mark Lewis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It’s a special new era for women’s rugby in Wales. Their current crop of players are more talented than ever before. They’re being provided the facilities to nurture said talent. The standard of coaching is ludicrously high. They’re pulling in mega crowds and inspiring a generation. And above all, they’ve gotten the attention of their union and are now seen as a priority. That’s how inspiring this team is.

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Women’s rugby in Wales has often felt like a footnote. Growing up, I remember the highlights of their Six Nations fixtures hastily being shown on Scrum V, with the pundits in the studio scratching their heads over how quickly they could move back to discussing the Dragons’ 23-6 loss to Connacht without being too disrespectful.

The women weren’t given the opportunity to shine above all else. All they needed was for someone important to care; someone to make a difference on their behalf.

Up steps Nigel Walker. After his appointment as Performance Director in 2021, he wasted no time in giving the players contracts, boosting their access to the same facilities as the men’s team, securing exclusive sponsorship for the women’s team from Vodafone and subsequently capturing the hearts of a nation.

In combination with head coach Ioan Cunningham, Walker’s ambition is to see Wales win a World Cup, and has identified that the way to do this is by getting ahead of their competitors in professionalisation.

At the end of a pretty successful Six Nations, Cunningham had a quiet word with Walker, stating the squad are ready for a smidge more investment. Walker is a former 110 metre hurdler, and yet his speed in completing administrative tasks puts his sprinting to shame.

This week, the Welsh Rugby Union announced that they will be introducing three new elite development centres for young, female players to use. These centres will be based at Swansea University, Cardiff Metropolitan University and Rygbi Gogledd Cymru at Parc Eiras in North Wales.

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So, what does this mean? Why have they made this move? And what will be the ultimate desired impact?

What’s striking about the current crop’s success is the level of improvement in senior players. Just look at Elinor Snowsill’s revamped kicking game, Carys Phillips’ sharpened set-piece work, the fact Kerin Lake is suddenly more powerful than Jamie Roberts driving a tank through bubblewrap; you can’t help but wonder how phenomenal these Welsh icons could have been if they had been given the chance to properly nurture these skills as teenagers.

Even the majority of the sub-30 cap crop weren’t given this platform from a young age – it’s difficult to imagine a version of Alex Callender who has even more experience of chop tackling, yet that is now an insane yet credible possibility.

Additionally, in 2017, the Welsh national squad were expected to finish working their full-time jobs, commute to Cardiff from miles away, have the energy to train and prepare for a World Cup. Thankfully, that will never be an issue for a Wales player ever again, and with three bases in position, the commute for young, talented players will also be decimated.

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The level of commitment will be much more manageable. More players will be retained. Players with mere potential are seeing better treatment and greater empathy now than the national team saw just one World Cup cycle ago. That in itself is unthinkable.

Now, let’s ask ourselves: why Cardiff, Swansea and Parc Erias? What’s the significance of these locations? One in the East, one West, and one up North. The East and West centres are relatively self-explanatory – anyone in the Ospreys/Scarlets and Cardiff/Dragons regions are covered.

A centre in North Wales, however, is a fantastic addition. North Wales has long been a gap in the market for men’s rugby, and therefore a perfect place to target for female players. These facilities could be the defining factor in poaching athletes from other sports in North Wales – and this can only be a good thing.

The Red Roses’ squad is living proof that the handful of cities who typically produce elite male rugby players do not necessarily correlate to the women’s game. A large portion of their squad are state educated, many from either the West Country or the North.

Tatyana Heard was raised in Beadlam, Yorkshire. Ellie Kildunne’s rugby journey started in Keighley. In fact, if you google “rugby players from Scarborough”, Zoe Aldcroft is the only result! Sure, a tiny proportion of English men’s players come from up North, but that isn’t the case for the women – and the same can be true of Wales. By targeting this gap in the market, the WRU have given themselves the opportunity to unearth new talents they otherwise wouldn’t have.

So what’s the best case scenario here? Well, the goal has to be to develop enough elite athletes in five or six years time that they can no longer just ship them off to the Premier 15s. If there’s an overspill of nourished talent, who knows, could we see the roots of competitive regional rugby in Wales? Even if it’s just one or two teams? It’s an ambitious target, but it’s not totally unrealistic if the pathway delivers.

Alternatively, if this proves to be an overwhelming success, we could even see the WRU finding room in the budget to introduce more centres. Carmarthen and Ystrad Mynach will be desperate to be known as women’s rugby hotspots before you know it.

If more young women and girls are involved in elite-level rugby, with high quality coaching, interest in the game will grow. Increased numbers of fans will bring more money in. More investment will mean women’s rugby will eventually become unavoidable, and the Welsh team will continue to capture the hearts of the nation, even more than they already have.

Forty professional contracts is a great start for Wales’ journey, but professional-level facilities for aspiring young players is exactly what’s needed to develop more world-class talents, such as 19-year-old Sisilia Tuipulotu – who might be the first female Welsh player who could sustain an entire career with these benefits.

The Welsh men’s team and its regions are in a tough spot at the moment, which isn’t pretty – but credit to the WRU for noticing that women’s rugby is the area of the sport that is thriving most and treating it as a priority.

Nigel Walker’s attention to detail and genuine undying passion for the women’s game will go a long way in Wales’ long-term World Cup ambitions. Ioan Cunningham is one of the best and most compassionate coaches this country has ever produced, and having one of his alumni, Siwan Lillicrap, coaching the next generation is such a promising proposition.

Let’s keep rewarding Wales’ players, coaches and management for doing such an incredible job. Let’s give them a platform to carry on inspiring. The sky’s the limit for Welsh women’s rugby.

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