The news crews gathered at England Women’s training base in Hampshire on Tuesday highlighted just how high the controversy over the squad’s contract status had pushed the sport up the news agenda.
It is a furore that has taken the Rugby Football Union (RFU), and the players themselves, slightly by surprise.
England captain Sarah Hunter insisted her teammates remain focused solely on regaining their World Cup crown as she faced questions over the squad’s contract status.
The Rugby Football Union has clarified how it pays elite women’s players following reports England contracts will not be renewed after the forthcoming World Cup.
Everyone who signed a deal last year knew exactly what they were committing to, while the governing body can claim with some justification that they were trying to give the side the best opportunity to defend their Women’s Rugby World Cup crown next month.
But that does not make concerns over the cyclical nature of the RFU’s approach any less valid.
On the contrary, it remains to be seen how many specialists in the longer form are able to take sabbaticals from their careers a second time when their turn comes again in a few years.
To many outside observers it would seem, too, that the richest union in the world should be in a position to pay both 15s and Sevens players regardless of whether there is an Olympics or World Cup on the horizon.
Politicians have called for a rethink on the strategy, but for Nigel Melville it is a question of perspective. Although it might seem that the 15-a-side players are getting a raw deal now, the RFU’s head of professional rugby insists the decision has been taken in order to ensure that England are able to call on a fully-funded pool of players from both forms of the game in the future.
“It wasn’t a shock to the ones involved because they knew what we were doing,” he said as he attended the squad’s Tuesday training session.
“It was a strategy. The problem is the people outside don’t know the women’s and girls’ strategy top to bottom.”
So, what is the RFU’s strategy for the women’s game?
Details will not be fully outlined until September but according to Melville will not only include a new 10-team club competition, but also provision for academies at those clubs as the body attempts to double the number of women and girls playing the game over the next four years.
England’s players train in Bath earlier this month. Julian Herbert/Getty Images
The decision to award one-year contracts to current 15-a-side players, the former scrum-half says, is only the first step on that journey.
“We’ve always said we wanted this team to prepare better than the last World Cup team. That was our first position,” Melville continued.
“So we said, ‘we’ve got 12 months, what are we going to do?’ So, we talked to the girls about it, what if we put you on contracts?
“Now, there’s a chance they would say, ‘well, we’ve got jobs, we’ve got homes, we’ve got responsibilities’. But they said, ‘no, we’d like to give it a go’.
“They can take sabbaticals, take time off work, do things that would actually mean they could spare the time to do more in preparation.”
Melville insists the RFU were investing in the opportunity to retain the World Cup and says this year’s Grand Slam success, and the summer tour to the Southern Hemisphere, might not have been possible without the contracts.
England captain Sarah Hunter said on Tuesday that the squad were fully aware of the RFU’s intentions before signing the deals, and that there were no fears over their post-World Cup futures.
“Before 2014 [World Cup] and the build up to that we didn’t have professional contracts so we know what life is,” she said. “We have to balance full time work with being as professional as we can in an elite world.
Former England captain Nigel Melville returned from a spell in the U.S. to become the RFU’s head of professional rugby. Warren Little/Getty Images
“But right now our focus is on what’s happening in the next couple of weeks. Our priority is getting our preparation right so we can be the best we can be when we get to Ireland.”
Hunter will return to her club, Bristol, and her work with the RFU once next month’s tournament ends.
Melville claims that one day she may not have to, but in order for that dream to become a reality he says that competition in the women’s 15-a-side game needs to improve with players taking part in at least 20 games per season. Next year they will play a maximum of eight for England.
“We want them to be in a great competition, playing at a high level against each other and [with that] you build your player pool,” he said.
“So, we’re leading the world in that respect but we’re also investing more than the rest of the world in this and then to get that bit of a hoo-ha about it, it’s like well, actually I think that our strategy is very strong.”
Melville suggested he could envisage a time when English clubs formed a competition with their French counterparts as they search for more, higher quality games.
And while he encouraged people to engage in women’s sport across the board, he suggested that the current controversy showed that there was an appetite for women’s rugby in particular.
“It’s growing and it’s through demand. People are very interested in women’s rugby and that’s fantastic.”
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