IT is a mark of how grueling England women’s training camp is ahead of this World Cup that, as second row Abbie Scott sits down, she has to pause for a minute to catch her breath.
“Sorry,” she says. “I had to do a bike session after training.” Scott’s explanation for her breathlessness provides an insight into England’s preparations for this World Cup.
Simply put, it has been pioneering.
In July of last year, it was announced by the RFU that 48 female players would be awarded professional contracts for the 2016/17 season. These would be divided into three categories. A total of 16 players were awarded full-time contracts with a focus on the XVs game, while the same number were given part-time, three-day-a-week deals, with a sevens focus.
The remaining 16 were awarded deals on a short-term basis, allowing players to come into residential camps ahead of major tournaments, including the Six Nations and the Women’s Rugby World Cup, to ensure the squad is well prepared.
Such a move by the RFU has had a dramatic impact on the England women’s team. After beating New Zealand in their own backyard in June, they are now the No 1 side on the planet and they go into this month’s World Cup as convincing favourites with the bookmakers.
The new professional contract system has helped to revolutionise the way the team train. By being full-time players, there is no need to juggle training with the day job. Instead, rugby is the priority and, as captain Sarah Hunter reflects on the past year, it is the benefit of time that is at the forefront of her mind.
“We are the only country that have invested solely in their XV-a-side game for this World Cup,” says Hunter.
“Other nations have brought some of their professional sevens players back into their XV-a-side squad to prepare for the World Cup, but we have been the only ones with sole XV-a-side contracts for preparation.
“Because we have been professional we have been able to have that added time of looking at all aspects of the game. So, as individuals and as a team, technically, we have got better in our positions and then as a unit, as forwards and backs.
“As a team, tactically, we are a lot more aware of what we are doing with regards to planning and how we execute on the field. Our fitness has gone up to another level too.
“I think all of that is because we have obviously not been in full-time work, so we have been able to have the rest and recovery that we might not have had before.”
With over 90 caps to her name, Hunter has seen for herself how the women’s game has been transformed in England. Its growth has dramatically accelerated since the 2014 World Cup, in which England and Hunter were crowned champions after defeating Canada in the final.
Since then, the popularity and prominence of the women’s game has grown, as has the quality of the squad. Indeed, among the 28 selected by head coach Simon Middleton for this tournament, there are over 1,200 caps, with 15 of them World Cup winners.
“Our programmes, with things like strength-and- conditioning, are very individualised around the areas we need to work on and areas that are really key for the positions which we play,” says Hunter.
“What the coaches have really focused on is doing our basic things well, they haven’t got bored of doing the same thing and repeating the skills we need to do, because that is what they think will win us a World Cup.
“The girls have really bought into that and the level of detail that they look at has probably changed over the years I’ve been here, but I think that is probably to do with the time they have with us. They have probably been the most fortunate coaches in preparation for a World Cup, in that they have had their players for more time than any other England coaches have had for a World Cup before.”
However, the landscape may well change for the England women’s rugby team after it was announced the RFU would be not be renewing contracts for XVs players after the World Cup.
It is a decision which has, naturally, caused a stir in England, leading to discussion among members of parliament, while retired World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi has also criticised the move.
Labour MP Barbara Keeley labelled it as a “shameful decision” and her party colleague Dr Rosena Allin-Kahn has written to RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie about the matter.
Amid the outcry, the RFU’s director of professional rugby, Nigel Melville, has attempted to explain the reasons behind the contractual changes.
“The RFU announced the first professional women’s contracts following the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2014. These were sevens contracts to prepare for participation in the Olympic Games in Rio,” said Melville. “The women’s game works in cycles between the XVs and sevens programmes and, as a result, next year there will be 17 professional, full time fixed-term sevens contracts to prepare England to compete in the two big global tournaments on the horizon: The 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens and the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“Contracts will then revert to XVs contracts again to prepare for the next big global tournament: The Women’s Rugby World Cup.”
Melville’s explanation does at least paint a picture that is not as bleak as first feared. While there is disappointment at the RFU’s shift in focus towards sevens, it is comprehensible when you look ahead to the major tournaments.
Crucially, there is also scope for the XVs contracts, which have worked so well in preparing the squad for this World Cup, to return in the year proceeding the next tournament in 2021.
The RFU has also heavily invested in the launch of a new women’s domestic competition for the 2017/18 season, which is why, even though it looks as though sevens could be marching towards the forefront of the women’s game, Hunter believes the XV-a-side format will flourish, too.
“XV-a-side rugby is still a game for all,” she says. “All shapes and sizes, different speeds, different strengths, while maybe sevens is going down the route of being more specific to one type of athlete, whereas I think XV-a-side still has that sort of openness.”
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