Katy Mclean has seen the landscape surrounding women’s rugby change out of all recognition during her 10 years playing for England. Not only are their matches broadcast live by Sky Sports, the World Cup champions are now full-time professionals. The former England captain talks to Catherine Smith at the start of a momentous year in the history of the Red Roses
When veteran fly-half Katy Mclean lines up in the shiny splendour of the tunnel at Twickenham tomorrow evening, she might experience flashbacks to the way it was in women’s rugby less than a decade ago. Mclean’s career spans the setting of the amateur era and the dawning of professionalism, so she can reflect on the days of freezing showers and matches played in the back of beyond.
Ahead of England’s Six Nations opener against France, the 31-year-old former captain recalled: “We went to Wales one year and the pitch was on the side of a river. The rain had been really bad and the river had burst its banks. We had to trudge through ankle-level water to get to the pitch. We weren’t even sure the game was going to go ahead.”
Twickenham will seem like another world, but one that makes the long slog from the muddy morasses all the more cherished. Indeed, 2017 marks further remarkable progress for the women’s game: not only will England be defending their World Cup title in Ireland this summer, but all their matches will be broadcast live and in full on Sky Sports, starting this weekend.
Mclean is quick to reveal: “Obviously all the girls have to do their hair now that we’re on TV!” Her team-mates Kay Wilson and Zoe Aldcroft chuckle knowingly in the background, though 20-year-old Aldcroft almost goes off-message when she muses: “In other sports you can’t just go out and get muddy, but in this one you can and you don’t care what you look like – you just go and have a good time with your friends.”
The ground-breaking changes do not end with the prerequisite of a pre-match visit to the hairdressers. The RFU announced last summer that for the 2016-17 season they would be awarding 48 professional contracts to the women’s squad, 16 of them full-time. When the relatively unknown and unheralded team stormed to the World Cup title in France in 2014, every squad member had full-time jobs to fund their rugby passion.
Aldcroft, with just two caps to her name so far, has already felt the positive repercussions of the move towards parity with the men. She said: “The contract has helped me a lot. Obviously I’m quite new to all of this and have started training more, and since then my body’s started developing and I’m getting stronger. We’ve had extra time for rest and recovery. Everything is now scheduled for us.”
Simply having more time together as a team has been the greatest outcome of the contracts. Mclean, who previously worked as a primary school teacher, describes the impact as “phenomenal”. She said: “We’ve never had the opportunity to have everyone together with so much time and preparation. And that does add pressure, but I think that’s what you want. If you’re going to be given this opportunity there’s no point shying away from it.”
When asked whether financial equality with England’s men was a driving force for them, neither Mclean nor the other two girls felt it was their priority. “It’s not something we worry about as athletes,” McLean admitted. “Definitely for the younger girls coming in it’s a massive opportunity. But for us it’s more about our performance.”
Commercially, too, the world of rugby is progressing. The RFU now negotiate joint sponsorship deals for the men’s and women’s teams. They say: “We’ve had massively increased support from our partners, like O2. They complement everything they do with the men’s game across the women’s game as well. Canterbury have introduced the first ever women’s shirt this season so the growth from a commercial perspective has been massive.”
Mclean, one of 15 World Cup winners in the present squad, still looks back on the progress made with something like awe. “I played in the Six Nations ten years ago and I never thought ten years later we’d be talking about the game being on TV. I think it’s a testament to the women’s game, not just to the work that’s been done in England, but the work that other countries have put into the tournament that everybody now wants to see it. It really gives an opportunity to those not able to get to the games to still be able to access women’s rugby and support us.”
However, professional contracts will be forgotten, commercial considerations put to one side, as England embark on an important six months on the pitch. Wilson, who has 39 caps, said: “We love playing the Six Nations, and it’s always an important tournament, but now it’s a stepping stone to our ultimate goal: to win the World Cup. We’re very lucky to get to play some of the best teams in the world and that should hopefully put us in good stead going into the World Cup.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.