Professionalising Wales Women’s rugby team remains part of the Welsh Rugby Union’s current strategy – but it’s set to be reviewed.
Many would argue that Wales Women’s players cannot realistically sacrifice much more to play for their country: the majority of them balance Test and club rugby and training with full-time work as they are still amateur rugby players.
One option being explored by the WRU is compensating players’ employers to effectively release them for Wales camps for a number of weeks at a time.
Another potential scenario to try and improve results is to add to Wales Women’s full-time coaching staff, headed up by Warren Abrahams, who was appointed in November. His first competitive campaign in charge saw Wales finish last in the Six Nations for the second consecutive year.
Wales lost all three of their games in this year’s standalone, shortened tournament. They lost 53-0 to a dominant semi-professional France team – a result which was largely expected – before falling 45-0 to fellow amateur side Ireland in something of a shock result. Abrahams’ side capped off their tournament with a much-improved performance against Scotland, losing 27-20 but emerging with credit in the bank. You can read an in-depth look at some of the reasons behind such results here.
Contracts are widely felt to be something which could transform the fortunes of Wales Women, allowing them to fully concentrate on rugby without the pressure to work alongside playing the sport.
Contracting players was publicly mooted last summer ahead of this year’s scheduled World Cup – which has since been postponed to 2022 – by former WRU boss Martyn Phillips, but Wales captain Siwan Lillicrap admitted on the eve of this year’s Six Nations that players didn’t know much more about the situation.
She said: “We’re under the impression as players that contracts are still going to happen. We haven’t heard anything differently that they’re not.”
Now, WRU chief executive Steve Phillips has addressed the latest situation with professionalising the team, criticism aimed at the Union for a perceived lack of support and future funding.
The former finance director admitted some players must be “exhausted” when accounting for travel, work and rugby, but insists he wants Wales Women to have the same opportunities to represent their country as their male counterparts.
“I keep coming back to the fact we’ve said publicly the women’s game is very important to us strategically and otherwise,” he said.
“We will invest in it and what we’ve got to do now is have a – I’ll use the words carefully – we’re going to have a check-in on our strategy.
“That’s already starting, I’ve had a couple of conversations with Warren along the lines of ‘how do we make this better? What do we need to do? What do you need to do? What do we need to do? How do we get this back in line with the original strategy?’
“Because of the pandemic, the Rugby World Cup has moved from 2021 to 2022, it’s a great opportunity now that gives us more time to check in our strategy and tweak and amend as appropriate.
“We are not moving away from our position that we are going to invest into the women’s game.”
After Wales’ campaign concluded, head coach Abrahams told WalesOnline there were a number of things “that we’ve got to tidy up to make sure that our players are in the best possible place to be able to compete at international level.
“Always, we point the finger to the WRU but there’s some incredible people who are really invested in the programme and want to help us.
“There’s a lot of support but we know and, I think most importantly we’ve seen over the last few years, that we’ve got to get an infrastructure in the best possible place so we can be competitive at the highest level.”
Whether he was specifically referring to contracting players is currently open to interpretation.
When asked whether Wales Women were close to going professional, Phillips said: “That’s actually in the strategy.
“There’s a lot of conversations to be had as part of the [strategy] check-in to taking all the right consultation, what is everyone else doing, do we think we’re internally on track, take some external viewpoints. We do this stuff very thoroughly to make sure we’re properly armed with all the facts before making a decision.
“[Contracts] would be another thing we’d be looking at. Is that still the right thing to do? We go from there. At the moment, that’s in the strategy. Unless we have a change of strategy, then that is the plan.”
Bosses are evaluating whether a set-piece, skills or kicking coach need to be brought into the environment, with Phillips elaborating on a potential scenario where Wales players could top up their time in camps.
“I think the other interesting question, this was a debate I was in last week: is there a conversation to be had here about effectively the WRU buying time for the players to spend more time together – that’s professionalism, that is contracting.
“For example, if you were one of these women, and your biggest frustration was ‘look I haven’t got time to train and I don’t go to camps’, I might turn to your employer and say ‘can we buy, whatever it is, two weeks or three weeks – Wales are having a camp… X cannot be worse off for this, so we’d like to make good’.
“It’s anything and all in that space.
“We’re very keen that the women are offered the same opportunities as the men, to the extent that they can stay in hotels and be part of the bubbles.
“People do have their day jobs. In all fairness, I spent quite a lot of time with them recently, some of them travel from a long way away to come to a training camp. It’s not because we won’t put them up or anything, it’s because they’ve got to get back to work the following day.
“That can’t be good – that just sounds exhausting to me.”
Wales skipper Lillicrap previously revealed: “We’ve got girls travelling from north Wales, north of England, getting home early hours of the morning and getting up for work the next day. That is the life of a Welsh Women’s rugby player. The reality is the recovery is the first thing that goes out the window because you haven’t got time to recover.”
As for Lillicrap’s revelation that players were not up to date on contract plans, Phillips added: “I wasn’t as clear on what the comment was, ‘we didn’t know what was happening’. I’ve had to dive into that one.
“I’ve met with them a couple of times to try and clarify what the understanding was and that’s an ongoing conversation.
“Contracting players is part of the strategy, but we’re going to have a check-in – what does that mean? Is now the right time? Should we be doing more? What does it look like? That’s all part of the ongoing conversations.
“I’ve got a meeting at 5pm on this very thing to see how we best push this forward.
“Now is the time to be getting on with this, to have these conversations and push us ahead, and to influence the check-in on the strategy.”
Six Nations CEO Ben Morel confirmed on the eve of the Women’s Six Nations that none of the £365million CVC Capital cash injection – in return for a 14.3% stake in the tournament’s commercial rights – was being ring-fenced to develop women’s rugby. He admitted that, while he was confident Unions would invest in women’s rugby, it was up to them to decide how to spend that money.
The WRU is receiving £51million over five years as part of this deal, and will be spending the majority of those funds on capital projects like a stadium walkway attraction and extending into the brewing market (their hotel on Westgate Street was a pre-Covid capital project).
Asked where the funds will be coming from to further invest in women’s rugby in Wales, Phillips said: “The majority of it is going on capital projects, but I also recognise that some of it will have to feed the game.
“Feeding the game could mean the senior men’s team, it could fund the regions, it could feed the women’s team – that’s an ongoing conversation. It’s getting the mix of it right.
“The majority of it will be needed to put back the drop-off in income, but ideally if we get this right there should be some left.”
Finally, Phillips was asked to clear up why former Wales captain Rachel Taylor had resigned from her role as full-time women’s national skills coach just four months after being appointed in the autumn.
“She just resigned, to be honest with you,” he said.
“From my point of view, I was very sad to see her go. Served Welsh rugby well. I was sorry to see her go, simple as that.
She’s been a great supporter of Welsh rugby in many shapes and sizes.”
Asked again if Taylor had elaborated on her reasons, Phillips said she had not.