Rugby World Cup: Where are Wales Women, one year out?

Wales team photo
Wales have ended winless in their last two Six Nations campaigns

One year from now Wales Women will run out on the global sporting stage to kick off their Rugby World Cup campaign.

Excitement levels have had an extra year to build.

New Zealand had been due to host the 30th anniversary tournament in 2021, but the Covid-19 pandemic saw it delayed until next October.

We do not yet know who Wales will face in their opening game, with qualifiers still ongoing, but what we do know is two southern hemisphere giants wait in the wings.

The prospect of taking on the defending champions in their own back yard and Australia just a few days later is a daunting task for a side with the best of preparations.

But what about for an amateur team on a two-year losing streak who once again find themselves without a head coach?

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) openly admits it has not covered itself in glory when it comes to the women’s game in recent years. It has apologised and promised to right the wrongs of the past.

The clock is ticking.

The coaching situation

The coaching set-up for Wales Women has been nothing short of a shambles in the past few years.

Rowland Phillips was at the helm when Wales pipped Ireland to automatic qualification for next year’s tournament at the 2017 World Cup.

But his mysterious exit left interim coaching trio Geraint Lewis, Gareth Wyatt and Chris Horsman in charge for the 2019 autumn internationals and 2020 Six Nations.

They moved on in the summer, along with former Wales captain Ryan Jones, who was performance director.

Warren Abrahams took up the reins as head coach in November 2020, alongside ex-captain Rachel Taylor as skills coach. They were two flagship appointments, with Abrahams becoming the WRU’s first black national coach and Taylor Wales’ first professional female national coach.

Taylor unexpectedly resigned before the 2021 Six Nations, while Abrahams left by mutual consent after less than nine months in the job.

As had been the case with Phillips’ exit, the WRU offered no explanation for Taylor’s departure, but speaking to BBC Sport Wales she said it was about “keeping my own integrity and staying true to my values”.

Taylor, now a performance coach at Sale Sharks Women, applied for the head coach role at the same time as Abrahams and admits she would love to do it in the future when “the environment is right”.

The WRU is now searching for a new head coach and in the meantime has brought back Lewis alongside former Wales Under-20 coach Ioan Cunningham and ex-Scarlets attack coach Richard Whiffin for the autumn series.

Wales fixtures

Poor results and public outcry

Wales could almost be forgiven for heavy losses to England and France in previous Six Nations, as they are having to compete with full-time and semi-professional athletes.

It was perhaps the manner of their 45-0 defeat to Ireland in April that set alarm bells ringing, especially when so much had been promised under Abrahams.

Ireland, after all, have the same amateur status as Wales.

The sight of captain Siwan Lillicrap breaking down in tears during her post-match interview would have broken the hardest of hearts. Nobody could have given more to the shirt or the armband.

Wales have not won a competitive game since November 2019 and a second successive winless Six Nations prompted a public outcry for the WRU to do more to support the players, some of whom were thrust straight into the international limelight without the benefit of a pathway.

In April this year, 123 former Wales players wrote a scathing joint letter to the union’s chief executive Steve Phillips pointing out the inequalities in the female game.

“Your systematic dismantling of the age-grade and development pathways contributes significantly to the failures of the women’s game in Wales today,” it said.

“The results of the last two Six Nations are a product of the current environment which brings us to a crisis point we have feared was inevitable.”

They met with Phillips in May but, unsatisfied with the response, launched a petition last month calling on the WRU to bring back performance pathways for females to play at elite level.

It has been signed by almost 4,000 people.

Alisha Butchers
Ten members of the current Wales squad play for Bristol Bears Women, including Alisha Butchers

The England exodus

All but a small handful of Wales’ squad members in recent years play their rugby in England’s elite league, the Allianz Premier 15s.

No-one can blame them, they are exposed to high-level competition in supported environments and stand a better chance of getting noticed for international honours.

At the same time the domestic game in Wales has suffered.

Look no further than Swansea RFC Women. The club which provided so many Welsh internationals over the years was forced to disband in the summer after losing so many players across the border.

There are three Welsh-based and six uncapped players in the 36-strong squad for the upcoming autumn series, with the WRU doing its best to fish out players in their talent identification days.

While fresh faces come in, we have seen others hang up their boots.

Alecs Donovan and Jade Knight both announced their international retirements this year, three years after making their debuts.

Donovan said the journey brought the “biggest highs and the biggest lows” but could no longer commit to such a demanding schedule, while Jersey-based midwife Knight struggled being away from her son and called for more support for sporting mothers.

Meanwhile, Ffion Lewis switched codes to rugby league, which she said helped bring back the confidence she had lost in union.

Others desperately want to get back in the fold. A notable omission from the squads in the past two years has been Sioned Harries, a star player in the Rowland Philipps era who still harbours ambitions to play at a fourth World Cup.

“I’m constantly putting my hand up wanting to be part of the squad,” Harries said.

“When I was left out of the Six Nations in 2020 I gathered some feedback, most of it quite contradictory.

“When a new coach [Abrahams] came in I thought there would be a new perspective, I was in constant communication with that coach. That coach has now left and I feel like I’m back to square one, and again with interim coaches in place I’m not involved in the squad.

“I have reached out, I have emailed, but I have not been responded to.”

The WRU promises better

The WRU commissioned a mid-term review of the women’s game in May and decided not to publicly publish the findings or recommendations.

But it has openly admitted failings.

Chairman Rob Butcher used his address in the annual report to insist errors will be rectified, while new performance director Nigel Walker said the women’s game is “front and centre” of his focus, and that resources and finances will be provided.

“There is more money in the pot for women’s rugby than there has been at any other stage,” said Walker.

But how deep that pot of money is remains to be seen.

Plans to give the players semi or fully professional contracts have been talked about for years, but as of yet nothing has been put on the table.

England, by contrast, offered 28 full-time, 15-a-side contracts to female players from January 2019.

The WRU’s then chief executive Martyn Phillips was keen to have paid contracts before the World Cup that was due to take place this year, while Lillicrap was also confident they would be in place some time during her career.

Back to work for Joyce

The call for contracts has been reignited thanks to the exploits of Jasmine Joyce on the world sevens stage.

The flying winger was a standout player for Great Britain at the summer’s Tokyo Olympics and on the World Rugby Sevens Series, with some incredible hat-tricks and cover tackles that almost broke social media.

But after the Dubai Sevens in December, Joyce will no longer be a full-time athlete and will have to return to work.

Appearing as a guest on Scrum V, she said she has been “living the dream as a full-time rugby player”.

“What more does a rugby player want? Unfortunately in January I’ll go back to full-time teaching, which I’m not quite ready to do yet,” she said.

“It’s definitely a career I want to go down to, but I was hoping I could have potentially done that in five years’ time after being a full-time rugby player.”

Former Wales 15s and sevens captain Philippa Tuttiett says it is an “incredibly sad” situation for Joyce.

“You watch her play and oh my days does she light up the field. She is incredible, she has got people around the world watching her, supporting her and wanting to see more of her,” Tuttiett said.

“It’s amazing to see her get her opportunities with GB, it’s so sad to think that it’s really a one-year cycle every four years.

“How in this world can we allow someone so naturally gifted to not do the one thing she was born to do? You wish there was some answer or some way around it, but there’s just not.”

Tuttiett does not think full-time professionalism is the way forward for Wales, as there are players who have built up careers they may not be willing to sacrifice for a one or two-year contract.

She instead backs semi-professionalism for the next few years, citing France Women who “compete with the best in the world”.

Looking from the outside in

Rikki Swannell has been a broadcaster in New Zealand for 20 years and Wales’ troubles on and off the pitch have not gone unnoticed down under.

“More and more people are starting to realise that what’s going on with Wales isn’t right,” she said.

“For such a great rugby nation, a proud rugby nation, to basically have been what seems to be paying lip service to the women and letting it get to this point is frustrating for everyone.”

She fears teams like Wales are going to fall further behind unless there is some investment.

“England, New Zealand and France are making investments, there is a danger that those teams are going to jump further ahead,” she said.

“There’s a gap to bridge between those three and then the next tier which is probably USA, Canada and then the next tier again.

“Investment at our end is improving really quickly. It’s concerning because we want as many teams near the top and firing as possible.”

Swannell added the WRU should harness Joyce’s global impact to inspire the next generation at community level.

“They have got this incredible talent, and I’m sure she’s not the only one, but she is someone they should be supporting and hanging their hats on going ‘we need more of these’, and it all starts from the ground up.”

Time to move on

Lillicrap says it has been a “tough few years” but the players have accepted the apology from the WRU and are open-minded on how it will right the wrongs of the past.

In the immediate future a head coach is top of the list.

Taylor says it is important that to find the right person, rather than rush someone in.

“There’s a momentum swing at the moment, almost demanding change in Wales, and I think that’s right. It needs to happen,” she said.

“That person who steps into that role is going to have to have an influence and the ability to manage up, and make sure that those things do change otherwise it will be difficult for that person to come in and stay.”

Looking to the autumn Tests, Taylor said she would love to see the team “play with enjoyment again”.

“From my experience as a player those environments aren’t much fun if you don’t have a belief in the team or you don’t feel like there’s a belief from above,” she added.

“For them to play with confidence and smiles on their faces would just be massive, as it will help them grow.”

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