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Torrid weekend in France for Wales Women shows huge failings at WRU

By Jess Hayden

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At Swansea University, I was part of the same rugby club as current Wales Women Cara Hope, Natalia John, Robyn Lock and Courtney Keight. I wasn’t good enough at rugby to play alongside them, but they are my friends and I watched them every week and trained with them. Wales captain Siwan Lillicrap was head of rugby at the university while I was there (and still is). Wales hooker Kelsey Jones coached the first team for a while. I also spent many Sundays at Swansea RFC watching the women’s team play – which included some of the Wales team who played this weekend.

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I tell you this because I talk from experience when I say how hard Wales Women work. I remember a conversation I had with Siwan, three years ago or so, where she told me about her hectic week.

Between Monday-Friday she worked full-time at Swansea Uni, coached the university players two or three nights a week, trained two or three nights a week, did her gym work in her own time and tried to find time for family and friends around that. She also regularly had to travel around the country on Wednesdays as a coach for university fixtures. Her weekends were spent training and playing games for club, region, or country.

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At this point the number eight was playing for Swansea WRFC, her region Ospreys, and Wales. Both clubs were close by to home in Swansea and the Wales training ground is about 40 minutes down the M4 in Cardiff. She wasn’t yet having to make the three-hour round-trip to Bristol for training.

I haven’t seen Siwan since she started playing for Bristol Bears but we keep in touch and I have no doubt she is still just as busy, if not more so. She is no exception – most of Wales Women are in full-time work or education. If Welsh women’s rugby players want to play regular elite rugby then they have to play for an English club, meaning long journeys across the border for the players, as the Welsh regional competition – unfit for purpose in my opinion – has not been running this year.

I know that Siwan will hate all the praise I give her. As well as being an absolute workhorse on and off the pitch, she is one of the most modest, hardworking, and passionate people I know. It’s why she is often compared to Alun Wyn Jones, her male counterpart who matches her pride in a Welsh jersey. They have also both captained Ospreys and Wales and both went to Swansea University (all the best people did). I don’t like the constant comparisons between women’s and men’s rugby players, but these comparisons do sometimes help to show the difference in support from unions and to familiarise fans with the women’s players. While Alun Wyn is heralded as the most patriotic Welsh player of all time, I would look closer to the women who wear the jersey for no money than the men who (comparatively) make a fortune.

The Wales Women pull on the red jersey for nothing but pride, honour and privilege, and they knew what they were signing up for. I don’t claim to speak on the behalf of all Wales Women, but the above context is important before we talk about the result against France.

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This weekend, Wales Women had a hammering from semi-professional home-side France in Pool B of this year’s Women’s Six Nations. Within the first 14 minutes France winger Caroline Boujard scored a hat-trick, with France scoring eight unanswered tries against Wales for a 53-0 win. The new attacking style of play from Wales had been given some hype before the game, under new coach Warren Abrahams, but we didn’t see much of it.

The game wasn’t entirely negative for Wales with a stronger second half performance. It was always going to be a difficult game and France are very likely to top their group. Wales have had just four months with Abrahams after a turbulent year following the sudden departure of former head coach Rowland Phillips.

Wales will face Ireland on Saturday and a closer match is likely. Ireland is also an amateur side and the teams have had close contests in previous years.

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Some on social media are quick to judge the Welsh side – questioning if the team should have any investment with performances like that. They completely miss the point. Adequate investment isn’t yet there in the women’s game in Wales. The WRU said they would give contracts to the women once a performance criterion had been met, which to me means they will ride on the back of the investment their players receive from the RFU in the Premier 15s until they absolutely have to invest. It’s also about so much more than the money. As Scrumqueens pointed out, even if amateur teams like Wales gave professional contracts tomorrow, the infrastructure needed to push women’s rugby is years behind. In my opinion, the WRU need to urgently sort the regional women’s tournament in Wales, better support their talent pool (insuring them would be a start), and have more open conversations with the RFU about player development.

To give an idea of the lifestyle of a Wales player, the kick off was at 9pm on Saturday and the Welsh team had to be on the plane at 8am the following morning to fly home – landing back in the UK less than 12 hours from the full-time whistle. That’s not enough time to shower, debrief, get back to the hotel, eat, sleep, recover, receive treatment and have any sort of rest. Can you imagine the men’s team having to do that? The players I spoke to do not know if there were other flights available or what the reason was for the early morning flight, but it was far from ideal for the battered bodies of the Welsh players.

What we are comparing here is a semi-professional French side with an entirely amateur Welsh set up. Some online have even called Wales semi-professional because some of their players receive payment from clubs. Let me be clear: some Wales women’s players receive match fees from their Premier 15s club. According to players, this often isn’t enough to cover their petrol and some of them now need to pay for their sports insurance too, as their clubs or union won’t. There is no real profit margin here for the players, who also only receive expenses from the WRU when they play for Wales. The ‘semi-pro’ status of some of the players for club is absolutely worlds away from France.

In the France national team, all players receive around a 50% salary from the national team and some receive match day fees for playing at their clubs. France players also have jobs or are in full-time education – it’s a requirement of playing – but the support from the union is much better. Clubs are geared to support the national team and the infrastructure is far, far superior than in Wales.

Money is tight for all unions after a damaging year of financial loss. Money doesn’t grow on trees and has to be invested where it will be most effective. But women’s rugby is growing fast and unions like Wales are at a great risk of being left behind, especially with the new WXV tournament that will further highlight the gaps in the women’s game with more regular international rugby.

Whatever your thoughts on the Wales performance, and you are welcome to be critical, be kind. There’s a huge amount of context that needs to be understood before critiquing player performances.

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Torrid weekend in France for Wales Women shows huge failings at WRU

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