For those enthused by following the Rugby World Cup, there has never been a better time to become involved in the game domestically. Laura Winter visits Harlequins and learns about the new league system at elite level, and grassroots programmes aimed at introducing girls from the age of three upwards to the joys of rugby
At half-time in the Rugby World Cup final, with England 17-5 up, it looked as though the Red Roses were not only going to defend their crown, but also launch the women’s game in this country to stratospheric levels. It was not to be on the night, though. The Black Ferns proved too strong in the second half, running out 41-32 winners. But all is not lost for another sport which has just experienced unprecedented exposure, participation and coverage.
It is very easy to say the RFU have turned their backs on the women’s XV programme, by essentially ending their professional contracts in favour of the Sevens squad. Yet in the same breath, the governing body have announced a women’s league, the inaugural Tyrrells’ Premier 15s, and pledged to invest £2.4 million over three years to develop the game domestically.
And the clubs have responded. Harlequins, a giant in the men’s game, have launched a programme which aims to give girls as young as three the chance to play rugby, as well as giving their senior women’s XV a much-needed boost ahead of a season in which they aim to defend their Premiership and National Cup titles.
Co-led by Gary Street, World Cup-winning coach in 2014, and Scot Karen Findlay, Harlequins will not only attempt to repeat their success at elite level, but also reaffirm its commitment to developing the game through the Harlequins Foundation’s Switch programme, introducing more girls to the sport. They have seamlessly integrated the women’s programme into the club to the extent that a 30-foot advertising board at their Stoop ground shows Debbie McCormack standing shoulder to shoulder with Quins and England great Mike Brown. No wonder Findlay, who has coached for 10 years, believes it is simply “the best time to be involved in women rugby”.
“It’s just so exciting,” she smiled. “I’ve been involved in the women’s game for 23 years and to actually see it on the verge of such exciting times … a new sponsored Premier 15s league, and integration with some of the biggest clubs in England. It’s the best place you could be as female rugby players.
“I walk around the Stoop and sometimes have to pinch myself. I played in an era where female rugby players had to make it happen for themselves, whether that meant buying a shirt or paying for your travel. Seeing Debs McCormack standing next to Mike Brown says it all. It speaks volumes for where the game has come. And they deserve to be up there.
“Women’s sport is now getting the profile it deserves and that will inspire the next generation of little girls coming through who can now choose rugby, football, lacrosse, whatever they want. I hope it’s rugby! But young girls can now see there is no reason why they can’t do it. There is nothing stopping them. There are no limitation. It’s fantastic.”
For former players like Findlay, it is now about giving back to both the grassroots of the sport and the talented senior players. For Street, who was instrumental in the glorious 2014 World Cup win over Canada in Paris, Harlequins are providing a new and inspiring challenge.
“It had to be something that really excited me,” Street said. “I’ve been around a bit! And I needed something that was going to be as exciting as coaching England – and that is the new programme here and the new league. I saw the passion Harlequins had for the women’s and girls’ game. I saw they really believed in women’s rugby and that was a place I wanted to be.
“The excitement of being here at the moment is fantastic. The support that Harlequins have put into the women’s programme is immense. There are banners and posters of our international women at the Stoop. The exposure, the professionalism that has come into the game … and to have the support of a professional club like Harlequins is groundbreaking. People are finally recognising how important women’s sport is. I’ve known it for a long time.”
Both coaches speak positively about the RFU despite the rumbling concerns that they have abandoned female players in terminating the contracts for their 15-a-side squad. Not so, insist Street and Findlay. Street believes in the RFU’s support and emphasises they are leaders on the world stage. “The RFU have been extremely supportive in the league itself, with £800,000 of funding this year,” she points out. “It’s the first time that has happened around the world and we are at the forefront of it.
“The contracts had a finite date and the girls knew that when they signed them. We are now looking ahead to the season starting next month and what it brings.”
Findlay, too, believes the £2.4 million investment speaks volumes. She said: “It is a phenomenally positive investment for the women’s game. And clubs are getting on board with the league, so it’s in the best place it can be.”
She agrees with Street that the RFU have been “really open from the word go” about their contractual position with the XV’s programme, and says: “It’s all about providing a vehicle now – whatever size, shape, ability level – you can come in and play this fantastic sport. The rest will take care of itself. In terms of investment, it means more women will play rugby and that’s a good thing.”
The Tyrrells Premier 15s League will start on September 23, when Quins will play their first home match at Surrey Sports Park against Firwood Waterloo Ladies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.