It’s nothing new for an ambitious young player to move abroad to raise her skill-set and experience rugby of a higher standard. The question is: how far does that help her native land in raising its own profile?
Before the fourth season of the Premier 15s gets under way, news comes trickling through of players signing on from beyond England’s borders. Jasmine Joyce recently urged aspiring Welsh players to seek a contract with English elite clubs. She herself has moved back to Bristol Bears who already have Elinor Snowsill, Siwan Lillicrap, Rhi Parker, Caryl Thomas, Manon Johnes, Kayleigh Powell, Alisha Butchers, Lauren Smyth and Keira Bevan on their books
Bethan Lewis, Gwenn Crabb, Kelsey Jones, Cerys Hale, Shona Powell-Hughes, Lleucu George and Sian Williams play for Gloucester–Hartpury.
Worcester Warriors have Alex Callender, Sioned Harries and Carys Phillips wearing their colours.
That’s twenty players the selectors would have difficulty on choosing between for the next international. Should it really have been necessary for them all to opt to play in England? The position is similar for Scottish and Irish players operating in the Premier 15s.
The Welsh Rugby Union takes Action
After England’s demolition of Wales 66-7 their head coach, Simon Middleton, called on the other unions to give full backing to their women’s programmes.
Wales have just announced concrete steps to do just that. They are asking for applications for three new posts: Head Coach, Senior Women’s National Programme; a Physical Performance Lead to design and implement a strategic programme for all aspects of physical performance for all levels of women’s rugby in Wales; a Performance Analyst for the female performance programme.
It’s noteworthy that the top job includes oversight of both the 15s and the 7s programmes. The national 15s squad hasn’t had a head coach since Rowland Phillips stepped down in October 2019.
No doubt these decisive actions were hastened by calls from the persuasive voices of ex-internationals to make up for lost time. The only limiting factor for unions like the WRU is funding. There is no other excuse for letting the women’s programme slip further and further behind the men’s.
The question now is whether this positive news will encourage players to stay at home. When some of the greatest coaches are operating – at least part-time – out of their native country, like Liza Burgess at Gloucester-Hartpury and Karen Findlay at Quins, it’s not easy to place the very best of them where they are most needed.
It’s more understandable when players from Europe seek placement in France or England. One of the most recent transfers is Sara Tounesi, the Italian prop, from Colorno to Romagnat.
And for second-tier nations it’s a long uphill struggle to raise standards.
No mention yet of the pandemic. In one respect it’s an irrelevance; if it had not taken place, the disparities between the elite nations and the rest would have been just the same. Only the financial cost to the whole game has skewed progress. The WRU won’t commit itself to a salary for the head coach beyond ‘according to experience’.