Hannah Jones was 25 years old with a sports therapy degree in the bag and pursuing a PE teacher training course at Cardiff Metropolitan University when her world turned on its axis early last year and a portal popped open into the promised land.
The Welsh centre had started playing rugby with a boys’ team 18 years earlier and stuck at it even as her mother had to drive longer and longer distances to reach the resources and opportunities she needed before making her Wales debut in 2015.
The game is the marrow in her bones, basically, and her time spent studying at Hartpury University for that first academic qualification had been an education for both mind and body given the access it offered to top-class coaching and conditioning.
The difference she could see and feel because of it when she turned into her second Championship with Wales was revelatory and the teenager made it known before finishing at the Gloucester school that she would turn professional if the chance ever arose.
It was hard to see then, but things changed.
Jones was one of a dozen players to put pen to paper just over a year ago when the WRU stepped across the Rubicon to offer a dozen pro contracts and commit another 17 of the squad to six-month deals leading in to the 2022 World Cup in New Zealand.
Wales have followed that up with the announcement of 25 deals for a year that kicks off today with their Tik Tok Six Nations opener against Ireland at the Arms Park. The only non-rugby work Jones does now is the odd bit in her partner’s ice cream parlour back in Ammanford.
There are all sorts of metrics and eye tests you could do to measure just what effect professionalism has had, and can have, on players who had to juggle their rugby with ‘real life’ for so long. Jones, thankfully, is refreshingly short on stats and buzzwords when explaining those benefits.
“As a squad, nutritionally-wise, we have lost the size of a baby hippo in body fat and gained a baby bear in muscle,” says the Wales captain. “I’ve seen a big recovery in my own recovery and I am much fresher going into sessions in the gym.”
The journey to this point, to this beginning, has been far too slow but the leap in the last year has undeniably been impressive given the Netherlands was the first country to offer professional contracts to female (sevens) players all of a dozen years ago.
England and France didn’t so much lead the way in terms of XVs versions in Europe for a number of years so much as leave the others behind. Thankfully, the reticence among the other four Six Nations unions has now melted away like a glacier and the trickle is finally threatening to become a flood.
History will be made this weekend when all six teams field players on professional contracts for the first time in a competition that is showing bumps in viewing figures and attendances and benefiting from its migration further into the season and into an international window independent of the men and U20s.
The IRFU was the last of the half-dozen unions from the blocks in terms of the longer form of the game but it has in and around 30 players on contract now between sevens and XVs and a staff of seven working exclusively with the latter. That includes head coach Greg McWilliams who was on his tod in that regard when he got the gig in late 2021.
The roll-out of the Irish deals has not been without its speed bumps with some notable senior players opting against the offers. Among them are a number of those like captain Nichola Fryday who are playing their club rugby in England and that bit further down the road of adult life.
Interestingly, most of the players contracted by the Scottish and Welsh unions are playing in the same Allianz Premier 15s as ten of their Irish counterparts, but there is no one-size-fits-all nature to the deals worked out across the different countries.
“The union was very understanding of the fact that different players are at different stages of their lives and their careers and that contracts maybe didn’t suit everybody,” says Fryday who, like the other UK-based players, is available to McWilliams for the entire tournament.
The big-picture numbers are going in the right direction.
Scotland have offered 28 contracts, Italy 22 and Wales have more than doubled theirs from the 12 they started with last year. France have expanded their contracted group from 26 to 36, and England had 30 players under contract at last year’s World Cup.
Baseline figures of anywhere between €14,000-€36,000 have been mentioned with match fees, expenses and the like topping those figures up. It’s a start. That aside, it’s the ability to prepare and rest properly, to avail of top-class facilities on a regular basis, that is priceless.
What effect these advances will have in the short term is another thing. England haven’t lost a Six Nations game since March of 2019 and they chase a fifth straight title. France’s only losses since a reversal against Italy four years ago have been against the champions. The hope is that a wider professional base will change this, but when?
“It’s definitely making a difference in terms of the quality that we are able to train at,” says Scotland’s Rachel Malcolm. “The recovery that we have had, just that extra time during the week not be at work and on our feet, and being able to do more analysis and the unseen bits, is definitely making a difference.
“It’s probably too soon in terms of closing the gap but I do think that we will see a better product from us as a result of those professional contracts. Even the amount of time we have together means we have much more down time than traditionally was the case at the end of a work week in camp.”
First up for the Scots is a trip to Newcastle today where they meet an England team looking to work off the frustrations of that agonising World Cup final loss to New Zealand last November and, at the same time, gunning for that five-in-a-row of Championships titles and Grand Slams.
England have annihilated Scotland in the course of their last four campaigns, as they have every team that isn’t France. They have scored 242 points in the last four meetings and conceded 21. Short-term pain will continue - for Scotland and, by extension, Ireland, Wales and Italy - before the long-term gains start to show.