Source: ©INPHO/James Crombie

Professional Rugby – What next? The Big Questions

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More Thoughts on the latest England Contracts

The 28 contracts recently awarded to Red Roses mark another step forward in the management of professional terms for women rugby players.

Before the Scotland match last March England’s head coach Simon Middleton said: …by the time the World Cup comes round I would like three or four world-class players in each position.’ (Interview with Ian Malin, The Guardian, 16 March 2019).

This piece of wishful thinking – which all England supporters would second – would involve the RFU in providing between 45 and 60 new contracts. Instead, learning best practice from its experiences over the past four years, it has reduced that number from 35 to 28. Only a single category is retained.
The Elite Playing Squad (EPS) of 2016 was divided into no fewer than four groups. These days this pattern looks cumbersome; it can hardly have helped to build unity and equality. Later on only two types were retained: the full contract and an EPS agreement which allowed seven players to become part-time professionals. That category too has been swept away.

Now we have a core group of the very best players, quite enough to form a strong 23 for any test match. If everyone was fit, there would be only five left unoccupied.

But recent experience has shown the emergencies that injury can cause. Over the last two series, the Six Nations and the Super Series, Middleton was deprived of nearly a team’s worth of players. It’s lucky for England rugby that it has such a deep well of playing talent available.

Their main rivals have come to similar conclusions about the right total numbers. New Zealand have opted for 29 (4 new names), France 26.

Standards are rising so fast in the Tyrrells Premier 15s that Middleton can feel confident of calling up a wide selection of players of the desired standard. This has been proved by the deeds of Rosie Galligan (v Ireland), Poppy Leitch (v France), Clara Nielson and Chloe Edwards (v USA) and Heather Kerr (the whole of the Super Series) – all called in to supplement England’s playing strength.

It is not our business to know what terms have been offered to the players. When previous contracts were announced, the press suggested a range between £20,000 and £28,000. But at least one insider source has indicated that terms for a similar contract were less than lavish. And, as eight players have discovered, your participation may end one year later.

Prospects are much better for contracted players who happen to receive club payments as well. At the other end of the scale, clubs with no affiliation to men’s elite clubs are likely to fall even further behind. They are already familiar with the wrong end of the Tyrrells table.

Players who are called up to supplement a Red Roses squad will be keen to know what financial rewards there are for them. A match fee would be the least they would expect, but is that enough?

The introduction of pay at international and club level is inevitably a slow gradual process. Tyrrells clubs are now grasping the nettle, but it is highly unlikely that all of them will be able to follow the example set by Worcester and Saracens in the foreseeable future.

If the newly formed Tyrrells of 2020-21 consisted mainly of well-funded clubs, that would be a crucial step forward. Once the player-movement settled down, we might well have a more balanced set of contests and fewer of those one-sided results that don’t do rugby any favours.

Next year’s reorganized set-up won’t mean battalions of new Red Rose stars appearing overnight. But the ten clubs involved may well be better financed, led, coached and supported than before.

The Latest Choices

There are some intriguing points arising from these latest contracts. Simon Middleton has repeated his belief in versatility as a prime virtue, but even so:

The 15/13 split between forwards and backs takes us back to the last World Cup. With a maximum of 28 players allowed in a squad, most nations opted for a 16/12 split. England followed suit only when Emily Scott was injured and replaced by Poppy Cleall.

There is no parallel limit on the current squad of course, but it’s interesting that the management has again gone for the 15/13 split. It means in effect that there is not a replacement available for each position in the pack. Versatility is one thing, availability another.

There are only five props on board – Vickii Cornborough, Sarah Bern, Hannah Botterman and the two newbies, Shaunagh Brown and Bryony Cleall. On the RFU website Cleall is described both as a No 8 and as ‘n/a’. We live and we learn.

Only three wingers are chosen, Lydia Thompson, Jess Breach and Kelly Smith. Breach, remember, was the one player to be on the pitch for the entire 400 minutes in the last 6N. No doubting her quality, but the absence of reserve players to cover the position may have played its part. Sarah McKenna filled in at left wing in the International Series in New Zealand, and Claudia Macdonald is taking on responsibilities few English internationals have experienced for a long, long while.

She didn’t play her first game till the age of 19 but made huge strides to find herself capped one year after debuting for Darlington Mowden Park Sharks. While she is still learning the deepest secrets of No 9 play, she is seen as the answer to the missing winger mystery. Indeed, she wore the No. 11 shirt against – of all people – the Black Ferns, in the final round of the Super Series. She played remarkably well in this unfamiliar position. The question is whether the England management should have needed to ask her to take on that huge responsibility.

Even with this reduced squad size, three scrum-halves are nominated. Of these, only Macdonald has appeared recently in a different position, though both Mo Hunt and Leanne Riley began (rugby) life as backs, which helps to explain their pace around the park.

Even so, this specialist position will mean one of them sitting out each game, even if the other two share on-pitch time.

When the next set of contracts falls due in August 2020, the RFU will face yet another tester: what to do about the Sevens contracts. If they continue their policy of the past decade, once the Olympics are concluded they will place all their eggs in the basket of the next major event, the Rugby World Cup the following year.

That raises the urgent question: will they bring some of the 7s players back into the Fifteens fold? A few of them have proven track-records in the longer format, not least Alex Matthews and Meg Jones. Would England really be prepared to challenge for the biggest prize without their services?

It would seem an unnecessary privation, especially if other top-tier nations make use of all their player-resources. And it is highly probable that they will.

If some of the Sevens contracts were simply renamed Fifteens contracts, that might not involve the RFU in extra expense. We could even get close to that pipe-dream of 45-60 full-time contracts!

Whichever path is finally chosen, it’s an unpalatable fact that several players who have been enjoying professional status for a length of time will not make the cut for the final World Cup squad.

All these considerations are still floating in the air.

It seems a great pity that space could not found to make mention of the players omitted. No doubt arrangements will be made to mark the disappearance of Rachael Burford from the Contracts list. Indeed, she may be called up at the first opportunity if a centre is unavailable.

In a game that prides itself on its warmth and friendliness this is a regrettable oversight.