We spent the day with the new female pros to find out how being full-time is changing things on and off the pitch

Behind the scenes with Wales Women

One by one, players filter in and head towards the fridge. One by one, brown paper bags filled with breakfast and lunch are taken out. Some players are happy to take out brekkie (waffles today), exchange tips on how best to heat it (some favour the microwave, others the toaster) and retreat to the beanbags in the team room for the intake of those early-morning, pre-training calories. Others rummage through the bags until they discover the one with their favoured protein bar flavour. It’s the little things!

As Bristol, Wales and Team GB star Jasmine Joyce points out, not having to think about food prep every day is one of the benefits of being professional. It may be one of the less obvious perks to the full-time contracts a dozen Wales players received at the start of the year (and the part-time retainer deals for another 12 players), but it all helps in that pursuit of improved performances.

Of course, the ability to focus fully on the sport, to spend more time working on tactical and technical elements of the game, on conditioning, on recovery, rather than juggling rugby commitments with work schedules is a big adjustment.

Going pro is not without drawbacks, with remuneration lower than a lot of players’ previous jobs, but with the Rugby World Cup moving ever closer on the horizon it was “a no-brainer” for the likes of Natalia John and Lisa Neumann.

“It was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to,” says winger Neumann, who was working as a clinical trials senior data manager. “Taking a pay cut is obviously hard, but I’d rather be doing something I really enjoy and take a pay cut than do something for the money. And I just love it. I feel I’m learning a lot and I’m always excited to come in the next day.

“You don’t realise how much you were doing until you’re in this situation. Now I can come into training and just focus on rugby, I don’t have to consider meetings I have, clients I need to speak to… At the time you just stick at it, you don’t know any different, but now I’ve shifted to a full-time programme, I think, ‘How the hell did I manage it?’ It was really fatiguing. Now it’s so much easier.”

As a Welsh-speaking physics teacher, John knows her career will still be there post-rugby. The second-row says: “For me, I would have told my students to do it, so it was a no-brainer. It (finances) is a bit of a worry, but you’ve got to be a bit selfish and do what you most want to do. This is something I’ve always dreamed about doing. I know it will be tight for a while, but this is the start of something incredible and I’m happy to be part of it.

“Before, I couldn’t give 100% to being a teacher and couldn’t give 100% to being a rugby player, I was more between two worlds. On Sundays I’d have the usual anxiety of having marking or lesson plans to do; now I wake up and can get my recovery in or do analysis. I’ve really enjoyed the challenge, physically I feel stronger, fitter, like I can give more. I’m only now, at 26, realising the importance of recovery! It’s a massive benefit.”

On the day Rugby World visits the WRU National Centre of Excellence, John is asked to present a few points from the previous session as part of a team meeting. As well as coaches showing clips from club matches that relate to techniques being worked on in training, there is a quick quiz on calls done via an app. It’s all part of ensuring players are not only grasping tactical plans but also having an input into discussions.

“I want an environment where there are no silly questions or comments and everyone feels comfortable to speak up,” says head coach Ioan Cunningham. “It’s important to have an environment where people can grow within it.”

On the pitch, where sessions start and end with an in-huddle clapping sequence (each day different players put themselves forward to lead it), there’s a mix of individual skills work and more game-based situations. Neumann pinpoints her catch-pass as getting better in just a few weeks, an area Cunningham has also noticed improvements in, in both Neumann and fellow wing Joyce.

For Eifion Roberts, who is in charge of strength and conditioning, having more time with players gives him the ability to increase their capacity to perform at a higher intensity for longer – something evident with their second-half comebacks against Ireland and Scotland in the opening rounds of the Six Nations.

“Consistency is the key thing,” he says. “Beforehand they had other commitments outside the rugby environment, they were in and out of the programme. Now there’s a constant base, we can work on getting stronger, fitter, faster and more powerful. Even from week one to now, we can see a lot of girls developing, what they lift in the gym, the numbers are going up.”

As well as specifics on speed and technique, the session incorporates running in the game scenarios too, with the aim that players are exposed to running at a higher intensity than in a match. When the formal element of training comes to an end, players split off into smaller groups to work on their kicking or lineout moves. A few TikTok videos then provide a little light relief on the sidelines as players prepare to head back inside.

The collaborative spirit evident on the pitch, with captain Siwan Lillicrap leading the shouts of encouragement to players nursing injuries and doing more pared-back sessions, is echoed in the gym where players offer each other advice on different exercises.

“We try to get them to coach each other,” says Roberts, who keeps a watchful eye over the squad as they work through their individual programmes.

Behind the scenes with Wales Women

Lisa Neumann during a gym session (Huw Evans Agency)

Equally as important as what they do at their Hensol base is what they do away from it, be it diet, club training or recovery. It’s about getting accustomed to a new routine as well as the change in mindset to rugby being the sole focus. “It’s understanding that every rep counts and educating players about setting up their week differently,” says Cunningham.

“What does Sunday evening look like to get ready for Monday morning? Have they done anything in the house before they left to allow them to perform at max effort? It’s having a performance mindset so they’re set up for success.”

There’s a female-specific element too. Jo Perkins is the squad’s physiotherapist and as well as explaining how players’ nutritional needs change at different stages of their menstrual cycle – more carbs at certain times, foods to prevent inflammation at others, protein and leafy veg when on their periods – she wants to change the perception around periods from being a negative to a positive, as a time when they’re “superwomen” and can make performance gains.

She has also introduced pelvic floor muscle training for players to do at home three times a week, saying: “The impact of running and jumping sports, the pressure on the body, can cause pelvic dysfunction or incontinence. There are other symptoms like abdominal pain, pain with sex or tampons… It’s about educating rather than people getting on with it or leaving sport altogether. It’s similar to specific injury prevention.”

While Cunningham admits that in his early years as a coach he could be too critical, too focused on the negative, he is now someone who likes “to build on strengths rather than deflate tyres”. It’s a point emphasised by John: “Ioan breathes belief and positivity. Everyone has things to work on but it’s also knowing what you’re good at, your strengths, and building on them.”

The World Cup later this year is the big driver, the incentive for putting in the hard graft now so that they can deliver in New Zealand. John talks of “not just scraping qualification (for the knockout stages) but putting a stamp down about what Wales Women are about”.

There’s a real buzz about what lies ahead, both in terms of being pro and big tournaments. Of course, that excitement heightens when a favourite protein bar is discovered!

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 edition of Rugby World.

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