Giselle Mather - in charge of the London Irish AASE Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence programme

Could she be the first female Premiership Coach in World Rugby? Asks Rugby World reader Larissa Falls. Giselle Mather talks personal achievements, team accomplishments, future goals, family commitments, role models and rugby coaching.

Giselle Mather doesn’t do praise. Asked whether she takes any credit from her remarkable coaching achievements, she modestly replies, “thank you.” Arguably one of the most successful rugby coaches in Britain, you wouldn’t dispute it if Giselle was less humble and more overconfident. After all, it seems Mather’s got the Midas touch…and a record to prove it.

As Head Coach of London Wasps Ladies between 2001 and 2004, Giselle took them to back-to-back Premiership titles. She’s guided the London Irish AASE Squad [Advanced Apprenticeship and Sporting Excellence] to being Plate Winners and South League Winners. As Back’s Coach of the England Women’s Senior team, Mather lead them to a Six Nations Championship and a World Cup Runners-Up medal, while coaching the England U20 Women to three seasons unbeaten and back-to-back Nations Cup Titles.

Giselle has also achieved a plethora of titles with Teddington Antlers RFC, including Surrey 2 Champions, Middlesex Bowl Winners, Surrey 1 Champions, RFU National Junior Vase Winners, London 3 SW Champions, RFU National Senior Vase Winners, and a 62 game unbeaten stretch with the Antlers Senior Men’s team.

With such an esteemed coaching record, you could be forgiven for thinking Giselle was born to be involved in rugby. But not so! Initially, she didn’t even want to play the game.

Mather’s playing career only began after seeking an alternative to hockey, and was initiated by a suggestion from her Teddington-playing boyfriend [and now husband]. Even in the beginning, Giselle considered the idea ridiculous, but after much persuasion and pestering from the Teddington Ladies team, she took to the pitch and demonstrated a natural talent for the oval ball game.

An aptitude that would see her as successful in the boots and shorts as she is with the coach’s whistle. A player for London Wasps Ladies and Teddington Ladies, Giselle was capped 34 times for England and was a winner of the England Women’s only ever Rugby World Cup Final triumph, in 1994 [which she remembers as her best sporting moment].

Giselle Mather, Wasps manager celebrating the league win in 2003

The progression from rugby player to rugby coach nearly didn’t eventuate either; although not of her own accord. It was during the infancy of Giselle’s career, when she was in her second year at Exeter University studying PE [she is a trained PE Teacher], that she came across the first of many gender infused challenges. The course choices were split according to gender, with boys being offered rugby, and girls dance.

“I’d started playing rugby when I got to Exeter, and I’d discovered a real passion for it,” Giselle says. “I understood they wouldn’t let me actually play with the boys, but I didn’t see why I shouldn’t study with them. I knew this was what I wanted to do. So I refused the dance option, and there was a stand-off. I was only just out of school but I wouldn’t back down and eventually they gave in.”

It is this steely determination, passion for rugby, and intense ambition already evident in her University days, that enables Mather to deal with the unfair, and unfortunately inevitable, viewpoints made by male players towards a female coach. Giselle explains, “Male players’ initial perceptions of a female rugby coach can be interesting, but this only lasts for the first few minutes.”

As for further hurdles faced by Mather throughout her coaching career, “I guess being the first female to do my Level 4 [she is the only female in Britain to hold this coaching qualification], and always being the only female on coaching courses can throw up the odd issue.”

“When I started my Level 3 Coaching training I rang the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and said, ‘I’m feeding my baby and I have to bring her with me.’ Although I was one woman among 100 men, I had no choice. The RFU had certainly never had a request like that before. They hummed and hawed and eventually said, ‘OK, as long as you are discreet,” she says.

Since 2000 when Giselle began her coaching reign, she has carved a prodigious reputation in this role. From Development Groups to Senior Sides, from club squads to International teams and from Assistant to Head Coaching jobs, Mather’s achievements would surely rival almost any CV. And what of her greatest coaching accomplishment?

“Each team and each individual I work with throws up different challenges and therefore different achievements come out of those challenges,” Giselle says. “The obvious ones would be my U20s side beating the USA 110-Nil in the U20s Nations Cup Final with a stunning performance, or Teddington winning two National Cup finals back-to-back at Twickenham for example.

“But then seeing a particular athlete develop, grow and improve and get into the England side and win her first cap, or one of my AASE boys mature as a player and gain an academy contract [seven out of the 14 boys who left the program at the end of the 2010/2011 season secured contracts with top Premiership clubs] also rank up there as great achievements for me. Gaining my Level 4 Qualification was an 18 month process and was a challenging experience,” she says.

And an achievement unheard of in the male coaching ranks; “Taking my first International squad away in 2000 with my eight month old first born in tow was also a major achievement for me.”

“I guess to single one out is hard as that is why I love doing what I do, as different challenges demand different approaches which result in different achievements, all of which I value highly,” Mather says.

However, some of Giselle’s grandest feats could be on the horizon. When asked if she would like to coach in England’s premier club rugby competition, the Aviva Premiership-and be the first woman to do so- she cautiously replies, “Yes, when I’m ready!” But adds, “Just because it hasn’t happened before [a female coaching a Premiership club], doesn’t mean it will never happen- those sorts of barriers don’t stand in my way,”

“At the moment though, I have a young family and I want to commit to them,” she says.

The expected family commitments entwined in motherhood is something her male coaching counterparts are less scrutinised over. The mother of three children under the age of 11 [Jasper, Roxy and Barny], says, “You have the issue of having and raising a family which is very challenging for a coach at the professional level, as it is definitely not a Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm job at that level. I feel that affects me as a female more than my male counterparts.”

Women are slowly breaking the glass ceiling across varying professions. Men work well under female bosses and women Generals succeed in the military, yet there is still a clear imbalance in professional rugby coaching; where few females coach men but many men coach females.

However Giselle believes it’s down more to “evolution” than preference. “It takes time for the process to role through. The game for women really got going in the late 1980s. An individual then goes through their playing career, say 10 plus years. That takes us through to the late 1990s early 2000s. It then takes time to travel through the coaching process to gain the experience necessary to coach at the professional end of the game.

“There is also the fact that boundaries have to be broken down as so few women coach at the top end of the game, but that is changing constantly as more women evolve into the coaching ranks having completed their playing careers. And as more lads are coached by females, it becomes more the norm instead of the unheard of,” she says.

Since 1994- when Giselle helped England lift the Women’s World Cup-, a lot has changed in the women’s game- and for the better. The recent 2010 Women’s World Cup recorded sold out attendances each day, whilst the final played between England and eventual champions, New Zealand, amassed an impressive13,000 spectators, with Sky Sports covering the Cup live. Last December saw Dana Teagarden become the first female official appointed by the IRB to referee a men’s senior International match, while the 2010 Pat Marshall winner, Maggie ‘The Machine’ Alphonsi stated that she now gets recognised, and stopped, by people in the streets.

Giselle believes it’s only natural that women coaching male teams, follows a similar path of progression. “There are now already several women coaching in the female game. I feel that if these female coaches want to it is just an evolutionary period of time before we see these females coach in the men’s game. Providing the female is good at what she does, be it player, referee, or coach, I believe there is a bright future for her in rugby,” she says.

With Giselle Mather a clear pioneer and architect, leading the way for females in rugby coaching, it is clear she’s going to be the prototype from which other women may wish to follow. So how does being seen as a role model sit with the Teddington head coach?

“I take that side of things quite seriously and would see it as a privilege,” she says. “When I took my coaching badges from 1 right through to 4, I was always the only female on the course, and as a result you are in the spotlight whether you like it or not. I am aware that as one of the first to do what I’m doing I have a huge responsibility to try to do the best of my ability so that my gender doesn’t become an issue or an excuse for those who doubt. I see it as important that I do well so that the next female who applies gets taken seriously.”

And what for Giselle’s future goals within coaching? “Today it’s no longer about proving myself. It’s about getting on and doing the job as well as I possibly can,” she says.

“I’ve got to keep challenging myself and work to become the best coach I can be. To continue to challenge and develop myself, my athletes and my teams to push themselves to be better today than they were yesterday. To continue to enjoy and be passionate about what I do. To recognise the right opportunities for me when they present themselves and then be able to grasp and make the most of those opportunities,” Mather explains.

“My ultimate approach to the whole thing is that I want to be viewed as a great rugby coach, not that girl who is a rugby coach,” she says.

While, at present Giselle may personally not be ready for life as a coach in the Aviva Premiership, should that very opportunity come her way, there is little doubting from previous successes, of the impact she could have on the landscape of English club rugby. Giselle is the beacon for expanding and increasing the exposure of women as rugby coaches…whether she likes it or not!