In late January, England and Bristol Bears lock Abbie Ward announced that she was pregnant. The Rugby World Cup finalist will be the first to benefit from the Rugby Football Union’s recently-installed maternity policy, and she is keen to explain just how impactful the move can be.
The policy, which was brokered between the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) and RFU will see contracted Red Roses players entitled to 26 weeks of fully-paid maternity leave. Furthermore, the ‘maternity, pregnant parent and adoption leave’ policy gives pregnant players the opportunity to move to another role within the rugby network until they go on maternity leave.
But Ward politely challenges anyone who wonders why such a move is worthy of making the headlines, or assumes that something like this was already in place.
“It’s night and day, the difference,” Ward tells us, from a camp she is involved in. “It must be a little bittersweet for players who have previously retired to start families, in that it would have been great had this been in years ago, to keep more women in the game. Women that probably did retire to start a family. Who felt like they had to end their careers. But it’s so positive now.
“Rugby has some unique challenges because of the nature of the sport – because of the contact. So obviously we’ve seen high-profile cases in sport such as (tennis legend) Serena Williams, who continued to compete through her pregnancy. That’s just not the same in rugby. I think the way that the coaches, the S&C coaches, the physios have worked with me to adapt stuff, to keep me involved, to keep me training and training at a really good level, has been great.
“I just feel really comfortable and really confident in being involved, but also about it making it easier for me hopefully returning post-pregnancy.”
Gone are the days of sitting at home idle for nine months, Abbie Ward says. She is also aware, though, that however vocal she is about her desire to tear back into playing as soon as possible, not everyone will be as fortunate. But to have the choice to step away or stay in the game is huge.
The bittersweet element mentioned above, may also pertain to a time when players vying for contracts or looking to safeguard coveted contracted spots may have had deep worry about falling pregnant. To see it as a risk. But to have open discussions about it now, is great.
As Ward adds, though, she would like to get to a point when it’s not big news, as inherently, she wants to “focus on what’s going on in the pitch”. But the lock believes that to get to that point we have to shine a spotlight today.
There are other examples worth shining a light on right now. On the story of match official Holly Wood, who ran touch at six months pregnant and is helping shape a pregnancy policy for officials, Ward said: “I think it’s great what she’s doing in terms of creating good guidelines for referees, and especially for amateur referees.
“I think it’s so important across the game to keep as many people involved as possible, particularly when there’s so few female officials anyway. And we want to promote that. We want to increase it. We want to show that you can do that. And actually, it might be an option that when people stop playing and start families that they can also continue being involved in the game.”
Others stepping up is a bit of a theme, as we head towards the TikTok Women’s Six Nations. As other nations contract player, Ward would like to see competitors also bring in new policies and athlete support. She also wants to see the standards continue to climb – a rising tide lifts all boats, and the hope is that the whole sport benefits from competitors chasing England’s lead on a few fronts.
The Red Roses pulling in huge crowds in standalone fixtures is great, too. But Ward would also like to see the “package” around the several elements of the women’s game (coverage on screen and in print, the events themselves) improve, if the sport is to kick on after the gripping moments of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand last year.
To hear more from players like Abbie Ward, tune into the RPA’s new podcast The Players Voice
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