The Tyrrells Premier 15s kicks off a new era for domestic women’s rugby on Saturday, but one of England’s most prolific clubs, Lichfield Ladies, are incensed that they have not been invited to the party.
The Midlands club have produced many England players over past 20 years, but were deemed not to have met the criteria for inclusion in the new competition.
Women’s rugby in England takes a step into the unknown on Saturday with the launch of the Premier 15s. For former England captain Sue Day, just getting her club’s name right will represent a significant improvement.
The Rugby Football Union’s Nigel Melville has stated that the new women’s domestic competition is not a commercial venture.
Instead, 15 former Lichfield players will line up for Loughborough Lightning on the opening day, and understandably they’re not very happy about the situation.
Becky Williams, director of women and girls rugby, told ESPN: “Lichfield’s heart has been ripped out. We applaud everything that the RFU are trying to achieve but I don’t think there’s anyone who can argue that what they’ve done is wrong.
“What we do is tried and tested. Sarah Hunter, Emily Scarratt, Amy Cokayne, Natasha Hunt, Harriet Millar Mills, Justine Lucas, Vicky Fleetwood have all come through our player pathway to get to the top of their game. I don’t think anyone can challenge the fact.”
Each club had to complete a rigorous application process to be considered for the new tournament and despite finishing second [by one point] in last season’s league and third in the playoffs, Lichfield’s was unsuccessful.
“No polite words can describe my feelings towards the situation,” Williams said.
“To be clear, we met the standard minimum requirements in full, the RFU were forced to reveal that when we appealed, we had more points than teams already in there, but for some reason we were excluded.”
It appears that Loughborough Lightning — who have never had a women’s league rugby side before — have effectively taken Lichfield’s place.
Moreover, according to new regulations, any woman wanting to be considered for international selection, must be playing for a club competing in top-flight competition. Consequently, most of Lichfield’s best players have been forced to leave — many to Loughborough due to its geographical location.
Williams said: “How can a club that’s not even a club, doesn’t have a team, get in above us? The outcome is now that Lichfield’s starting team from last year is [pretty much] Loughborough’s starting team for this year. All of the Lichfield girls have had to go. We’ve lost 30 players.
“When you’ve got 30 players on a top-flight rugby development pathway, it puts them in a difficult position, obviously. If they want to continue playing top flight rugby they have to move, they’d be stupid not to. And it’s not just England, it’s our Scotland and Welsh players as well. As part of selection criteria and player pathway, players can’t play for Lichfield.”
Lichfield believe that they were discriminated against and wrongly scored during the application process. Controversially, Nicky Ponsford [an ex-Loughborough student] was involved in the tendering process.
Williams said: “The whole process was a disgrace. Anyone that’s in the securement or tender industry would have had a field day. Of course, although we appealed, it’s appealing through the RFU, so any barrister is not exactly going to go against their own boss. You can get full access to the appeal notes and you can see that there are quotes in there that are lies.
“There is some stuff in there that you think how can you say that that’s okay when it’s a lie. Very, very bizarre. Nicky Ponsford was sitting in the meeting — we did not know that Loughborough University were involved, that they were even tendering. Not only is Nicky Ponsford a student [of Loughborough University] and an alumni, but she also used to coach at Loughborough University.
“There were many, many points that we were not happy about.”
The RFU has stated that the applications were judged on a number of factors [not disclosed] and Lichfield were not among the top 10 clubs at the end of that process.
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