Wasps Ladies director of rugby Giselle Mather on how the pandemic is affecting the English women’s game

What’s next for the Premier 15s? 

The pandemic has ripped through the game like a tornado, leaving a path of destruction. A season null and void, with no rugby in the Premier 15s since January; the title sponsor gone, so too the development league. On top of that, Premier 15s clubs are going through a rigorous return-to-play process.

With all that on the menu, I could be forgiven for feeling things are spiralling out of control – but I don’t. Change of this magnitude is not comfortable but there is much to look forward to.

We’re about to start the second cycle of the Premier 15s. In years one to three, the biggest change was the product on the field. The enhanced physicality, conditioning and skill levels are obvious, but the tactical strategies employed show the different styles of each side.

What’s next for the Premier 15s?

View from the top: Wasps Ladies director of rugby Giselle Mather (Getty Images)

Now years four to six begin. Exeter and Sale replace Richmond and Waterloo; both new sides are coupled with men’s sides and have serious financial backing. It brings the elite women’s game to new regions, allowing girls in the South-West and North-West to see their heroes playing and the pathway that exists.

Scrapping the development league, with Premier 15s squad sizes reduced from 60 to 40, will see 200 talented players enrolling in Championship One and Two. With Waterloo and Richmond joining as well, the standard of the second tier will improve dramatically.

Two of the major focuses for all clubs in the second Premier 15s cycle are professionalism and commercialisation. Every DoR faces the challenge of starting the process of taking their club – and collectively the sport – from its amateur status to a professional one.

“Change of this magnitude is not comfortable but I’m optimistic”

Finding ways to make this happen is very difficult but it must be sustainable. The RFU has imposed an initial £60,000 salary cap on each club to ensure it is done gradually and the league remains competitive. High-quality daytime training groups, individualised skill development, strength and conditioning work, and improvements in recovery time, nutrition and sleep will make all the difference.

With 28 RFU elite contracts protected, clubs adding more part-time players across the league will see the on-field product step up again. This makes the task of commercialising the sport more achievable.

During this pandemic the nation has sorely missed live sport. We must channel our energy and resources into marketing our matches, bringing them to larger audiences and developing fanbases. The women’s game brings its own flavour. It is not trying to copy the men’s game; we cater to what our athletes bring and give them room to express their skill-sets.

Bringing a new title sponsor on board is important. Tyrrells gave us a sponsor at the inception of the league but it was not highly involved in promoting the game. We now have a huge opportunity to get the right sponsor for the next stage.

The dual lives of female players means they are a unique draw for brands that want to showcase amazing role models. I have doctors, rocket scientists, Forces personnel and engineers in my squad. This is what makes us different to our professional male counterparts.

Plus, the profile of the sport is set to rise still further in 2021 with both the Olympics and the World Cup. With sevens players involved in the Premier 15s this season, a title sponsor will be connected to amazing athletes on the world stage in both sevens and 15s.

The women’s game has every reason to be confident about its future. The pandemic, whilst creating massive change, has given us the opportunity to reflect, plan and await the ever-nearing return to play with genuine optimism.

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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