The 500 or so spectators who attended Saturday’s semi-final of the Tyrrells Premier 15s between Saracens Women and Wasps Ladies at Allianz Park may one day regard themselves as pioneers.
The players they watched produced a clear-cut 31-13 win for Saracens were a mixture of full-time professionals – the likes of Hannah Botterman and Zoe Harrison who are among England’s 28 Red Roses under contract with the Rugby Football Union – and amateurs who fit training around their day jobs or student life.
Anyone who remembers the men’s game going open in 1995 will see fascinating similarities in the position the women now find themselves in, and it appears the central figures are keen to learn from past mistakes.
First it must be said women’s club rugby is not new – Wasps Ladies were founded in 1984 and Saracens five years later. But the push to being paid to play is much more recent, nudged in part by England winning the women’s World Cup in 2014. The Premier 15s (a rejig of the existing league) began last season, with RFU funding for off-field support such as physiotherapy of £2.4million over three years.
Move to part-time first?
“The game, surely, will eventually go professional, given the way women’s sport is in this country,” said Giselle Mather, the highly-respected head coach of Wasps Ladies who has also coached in men’s rugby. “I am hoping over the next three years or so the whole league moves part-time – the club will pay their players for two days and they will do part-time work for three, and earn a sustainable living. I can’t say to one of my players who has a job ‘I have got a sponsor who has some money for you’ for a flash-in-the-pan six months. I look back at  when the men went professional and several clubs went under. We have got to do this in a sustainable way.”
The competitive spirit being what it is – and Saracens’ England wing Abby Dow illustrated it, departing early with a bloody nose after she drove into a clear-out – each club is on its own track to a degree. Saracens have drawn up “agreements” (a word they prefer to contracts) for all their 60 female players next season, involving training, medical and careers support. But not pay – not yet.
“We will invest in our infrastructure, we will invest in our people and when it is right, we will certainly reward our players further,” said head coach Alex Austerberry, who was proud of and impressed by a talk given by Saracens players Sarah McKenna and Bryony Cleall to the club’s sponsors in the City of London last Tuesday. “Athletes are fabulous people to have on a company’s staff,” said Mather. Wasps have been unable to beat any of the Premier 15s’ top three this season, and there was a 10-point gap between Wasps in fourth pace and Gloucester-Hartpury in fifth. “It is inevitable there will be various tiers when Saracens and Harlequins particularly have a lot of Red Roses in their packs,” said Mather.
The RFU has arranged for clubs to take advice from Birmingham City Ladies in football and Surrey Storm in netball, and the Union live-streamed the two semi-finals, but with most attendances in the hundreds, revenue is not huge. On Saturday, some were admitted for free on their Saracens’ season ticket; others paid a tenner. Saracens accumulated five tries by internationals Jodie Rettie, Lotte Clapp, Poppy Cleall, Botterman and Rosie Galligan. The last-named had a fine match in the second row, having been capped by England during their Six Nations Grand Slam this year. “I do think in the future there will be a monetary element to it,” said Galligan, 20, who is on a work placement teaching PE at a school in Hertfordshire while studying for a degree in sport management.
“The next generation will have a great set-up and I look forward to seeing where it is going to go.”
In Sunday’s second semi-final, Loughborough Lightning had England centre Emily Scarratt taken to hospital with a dislocated thumb in the course of their 26-10 loss to Harlequins Ladies watched by 1,265 spectators at The Stoop.
The final between Saracens and Quins will be at Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday 27 April.