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FEATURE Abby Dow: ‘I love playing rugby when I'm happy’

Abby Dow: ‘I love playing rugby when I'm happy’
4 months ago

Abby Dow experienced something new as she checked into the vast St George’s Park campus last month. More than six years on from the moment she first walked into a Red Roses training camp, it was not only the salubrious setting, or the head coach overseeing the drills, that had changed.

In previous seasons, whether pitching up at Bisham Abbey, Pennyhill Park or in more recent times, the plush home of England’s national football teams, Dow had been part of a larger collective. One of a group of Wasps or Harlequins players.

Now, though, she ambled into reception as the sole representative of Trailfinders Women, the arrivistes of Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR).

“It was my first camp going, ‘Oh, it’s just me!’” Dow tells RugbyPass in typically sardonic fashion.

Abby Dow
Dow is an ebullient presence in the England squad, on and off the pitch (Photo Morgan Harlow – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, given what she has achieved in her 40-cap England career, any sense of nervousness or anxiety was fleeting – “I’ve known so many of these girls for so long” – and there was plenty of interest from her team-mates about the project in Ealing.

“It was just a couple of comments being like, ‘Trailfinders seem to make the highlights quite a bit’ in terms of the tries of the week and how we play,” Dow adds.

“They’ve all played us once at least now, so they can all understand and be like, ‘Oh god, when it’s broken play you lot are savage. I was like, ‘Yep, that’s our plan!’”

Dow has helped lead the charge on that front, contributing six tries from nine matches in green and white, and crossing the whitewash in each of the team’s two victories so far – against Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks.

In their most recent match, against Saracens at StoneX Stadium, Dow provided the score that briefly gave Trailfinders hope of a famous result. Tracking Vicky Laflin’s lung-busting break down the right wing, she pocketed the pass inside and flicked on the afterburners to evade England colleague Jess Breach and dot down under the posts.

It was me going back to what I knew brought out the best in me and what I knew that I enjoyed and I thrived on. In my head, I trusted them all to be able to create a team that could compete in the league.

Naturally, it was nominated for the PWR Try of the Week, coming in second in the public vote. “We’ve got that little bit of jouez and that little bit of spark about us,” Dow says. “[But] that spark isn’t something we rely on.”

What might look like spontaneity on the pitch is actually the result of hard work on the training pitch, and the systems put in place by director of women’s rugby Giselle Mather and her coaching staff.

Mather is the driving force behind the club’s ascension to the top-flight and had been the face of the project after leaving Wasps to take up her current position 18 months ago. That changed to an extent on 10 May last year when Trailfinders announced their first signing for their debut PWR campaign.

“The first piece of our puzzle!” screamed the tweet that announced the news. “Welcome to Ealing Trailfinders, Abby Dow!”

As a statement of intent, it was huge. Dow had just scored six tries to help England to another Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam and would end 2023 as a WXV 1 champion and World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Year nominee.

Even if her time as a Quin always felt temporary, she would not have been short of suitors. Not least because the pace and agility that made her such an attacking threat had remained intact following the leg break that threatened her involvement in the 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup, a tournament she ultimately lit up.

Abby Dow
Trailfinders have won two of their first nine games and been competitive against the Premiership’s top sides (Photo Henry Browne/Getty Images)

To borrow the analogy from Trailfinders’ own tweet, the club had landed the giant corner piece from which the rest of their jigsaw would take shape.

The presence of Mather, and a number of coaches she knew well from Wasps, undoubtedly helped soothe the short journey north from Twickenham Stoop to Vallis Way and alleviated the pressure of being her new club’s foundation signing.

“Because I knew who the coaches were,” Dow explains, “these were all coaches that had come from Wasps and I had been with for years, I wasn’t worried in that sense.

“For me, it wasn’t [like being] a new signing. It was me going back to what I knew brought out the best in me and what I knew that I enjoyed and I thrived on. In my head, I trusted them all to be able to create a team that could compete in the league.

“And I think so far we’ve had really good success at competing and actually bringing the best out of all the players that we have.”

We all play rugby because we fell in love with it as kids or we fell in love with it when there was no other reason to play it but to love it.

Dow was only 19, and yet to make her first-team debut at Wasps, when Mather returned to the club in November 2016. One year and 16 days later, she was a full England international.

“The amount of growth that I’ve had to do as a human being [is huge], and not even realising until now what Giselle was doing in that time period,” Dow says when asked to quantify the importance of her coach to her career.

“She basically has a brilliant ethos of if you improve the person, you improve the player because they’re one and the same.

“We all play rugby because we fell in love with it as kids or we fell in love with it when there was no other reason to play it but to love it. And I think, therefore, when you now play it and it’s a career, you should continue with that ethos because you’ve got years of experience of playing when you’re loving it.

“Giselle basically said, I need to work on that person to make sure that they always love the sport. I would have been so frustrated talking to a younger version of me being like, these are the opportunities that you’re missing of growth and just missing social cues.

“There was all sorts of stuff and Giselle really helped me grow as a human being to actually understand how to be a better player on the pitch. So yeah, I definitely owe a lot to her.”

Giselle Mather
Mather, Trailfinders’ director of rugby, has been a key influence on Dow’s career both at Wasps and Ealing (Photo Henry Browne/Getty Images)

She adds: “You always think you know everything in the world at that point in time in your life, and then you give it five years and you look back at yourself… and you’re like, ‘God, I knew nothing!’

“When I was 20 years old, I thought I knew, not everything about rugby but I was like, ‘Nah, I kind of know what I’m going to do, I know how to do it; x, y, z’.

“But actually, I wasn’t consistent. I had so much more potential than I was actually giving and Giselle basically helped me set a platform mentally to support myself in actually understanding that.”

Mather continues to push Dow to be the best she can be on and off the pitch. Ahead of the Trailfinders’ maiden PWR season she made her vice-captain, alongside Shannon Ikahihifo. “I didn’t realise how much work that was and how much I have to do in terms of understanding what situations are,” she admits.

“Because I think one thing that I’m not very good at myself is reading social cues and reading why someone’s done something. I’m quite logically minded, so I’ll be like, well, they’ve done this, so they must think like this. And it’s like, no, they’ve done this as a result of something.”

Yes, we want to be competitive, but we want to win in a way that inspires, that gets girls and boys picking up rugby balls for the first time and wanting to be a Trailfinder.

As part of the leadership group, Dow has seen first-hand what it takes to build a club, and a cohesive side, from scratch. “Normally, you go into a team and you choose that culture and you pick and choose a team based on what you think applies to you,” she explains.

“I think creating it is definitely a new experience for so many of us and actually, each game is just a massive learning curve. And now we’re really starting to click and actually have those highs, have those lows, like how do we react in certain situations?

“And I think it’s shown in our game play where we’ve actually really been able to nail it on the head. And then some games maybe not nail it on the head but learn why. So, I think it’s been a really interesting, brilliant year that we’ve had so far. And I’m so excited to see how the rest of the season plays out.”

With nine of 16 regular season games played, Trailfinders find themselves comfortably in the bottom half but with reason to be optimistic as they build towards the future. A narrow defeat by Harlequins – in which Dow, Julia Schell and Tyson Beukeboom started less than two weeks after stepping off their flights from New Zealand – was an encouraging start and they also gave champions Gloucester-Hartpury a scare at Vallis Way last month.

Abby Dow
Dow helped England to three wins out of three at the WXV1 tournament in New Zealand. (Photo Joe Allison/Getty Images)

“We are competing in every single match that we’ve turned up to,” Dow says. “You can’t ask a team that has had a culture and has been a team and gone through those hardships probably for the first time each time this has happened, you can’t expect that in comparison to teams that have been around for, what, their seventh season now as a Premiership side.

“There is a big difference there and there is a gap, but I think the brilliant work that we’re doing is closing that gap. By the end of the season, I will be so intrigued to see how we play and how we compete, because we’ve played every single team now and it’s new every single time we’ve played.

“I remember our first game against Quins at the beginning we just lost, within five points (17-22), we had a red card for 50 minutes of the game, and we’d been in contact with each other for six days. You can understand that being competitive with only six days of knowing each other, it’s absolutely brilliant.

“I do think we compete, and I do think we actually entertain as well. I think we have a brilliant crowd at Trailfinders, and I think we play a style of rugby… it’s almost like the men’s World Cup, how I think some of the teams that weren’t necessarily getting to the knockout stages didn’t come home inspiring any less people because the way they played their rugby was brilliant to see.

“You take a Portugal, it was brilliant to see… what they did was inspire the whole entire nation when they came home. And I think that is one of our fundamental values, that yes, we want to be competitive, but we want to win in a way that inspires, that gets girls and boys picking up rugby balls for the first time and wanting to be a Trailfinder.”

That is very much an ethos Dow will hope to take into the Women’s Six Nations, as England start life properly under John Mitchell following the Kiwi coach’s watching brief during WXV.

Abby Dow
Dow has scored 17 tries in 17 Six Nations games for England over the last six years (Photo Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Mitchell has made it a priority to get to know his players and although Dow is a self-confessed “awkward caller”, she has been impressed with how approachable he has been. “He seems absolutely sound,” is Dow’s verdict.

“In the same vein as Giselle, wanting to get to know the person, not just the player, because they’re just as important. It doesn’t matter how good you are as a player, if you’re staying for two months in a hotel with someone, you’re going to work out who the person is, and you need to be able to support that person as well.

“And I think it’s a brilliant step forward in that sense, that he is making sure that he gets to know all of us and rings us up. And it’s not just about rugby as well, it’s like, ‘How are you? What are you doing?’ Because there’s more than just being on the pitch.”

Fortunately for Mitchell, England and Trailfinders, Dow is in a good place. “It doesn’t matter how much pressure you put onto you, you need to make sure you’re still enjoying the sport,” she says.

“Right now, I’m really happy that I am in love with rugby at Trailfinders and hopefully that will show when I go into England, and hopefully wear that white shirt. I love playing rugby when I’m happy because that’s what I’ve done for years, and why would I change it?

“And that’s my pressure, is almost making sure that I’m in the right mindset when I do play.”

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