The renaissance of women’s rugby at Shelford
Will Cotterill is determined that an equal aspirational pathway will be created for girls and women at Shelford Rugby Club.
In just two seasons, the women’s programme at the Davey Field has gone from eight to 50 players.
They started the last campaign with one side – in Women’s National Challenge League, Midlands One – but the numbers had grown to too many for the first XV, so with a bit of ‘cross pollination’ a Nomads development side was started.
With some players returning from Cambridge University RUFC, there were enough to field two full teams and it is now hoped that with others stepping up from the under-18s squad, more fixtures will be found for the second team. It is all part of the bigger picture for Shelford.
“It’s very important to us,” said director of rugby Cotterill. “The club is very proud that we can offer a rugby programme for girls right the way through to women.
“We put it up there now alongside the men’s programme. We’ve worked hard over the last year or so to align the two programmes.
“With the women’s first XV, we’re putting much more emphasis on supporting them so the men’s strength and conditioning coaches are now working with the women’s squad.
“We’ve adjusted our training times so that the first half-hour of the women’s training is before the men’s so that our set-piece coaches, like Milo (Anderson), can go across and do scrum work and line-out work with the women’s team.
“We’re there to support them through. They’ve got a great programme, their coaches are doing a great job but we, as a men’s programme, instead of being completely separate are now engaging with them, supporting them and helping them develop to the next level.
“They are ready to go to the next level – over the next couple of seasons I’d be very surprised if they weren’t topping their league and looking to get promoted.”
Cotterill explained that much of the growth of the women’s programme is player and coach led from within.
They had faced a lull in player numbers and at one stage were down to not quite enough to be able to field a full side.
But Cotterill has been impressed by their commitment and self-management to turn things around.
“They have put themselves in a leadership group, they have their own internal committee structure, they have gone out and promoted and recruited,” he said.
“Scott (Brand, the women’s manager) and Oakley (Cox, head coach) as coaches have made the programme enjoyable, social and with a lot of development.
“The aspirational women are getting better and better, and the social players joining the programme are actually liking it and getting better at rugby, so they are buying in as well.
“The improvement is quite key, but it is underpinned by the social environment that they have created themselves and I think that’s why they’ve been so successful.”
The uptake in the women’s programme has seen a snowball effect, with more people wanting to join up.
There is a balancing act as the pool of the players goes into the one squad – which perhaps contrasts to the men’s team where you have the top two squads, and then different levels.
“I don’t know the secret ingredient but they have built such a cohesive group and well-run programme,” said Cotterill.
“They have hit the nail on the head with getting the right blend for all the women to find their place within the squad. It’s allowing them to progress the first XV while still developing the second XV.”
The aspirational element is another important factor.
Girls are able to play rugby with boys from the ages of seven and eight until they are 11 or 12, but they must then play with their own sex.
Shelford have created an under-13 programme which feeds into the under-15s, under-18s and then into the women’s squads, which will have the development and first XV teams.
“The key for us as a club is that we’ve got a pathway for girls,” said Cotterill.
“It’s something that locally there isn’t at the moment.
“It’s a clear pathway, just like the boys, which is fantastic.”
There were three players who turned 18 last season to progress into the women’s squad, which Cotterill believes is a great sign of things progressing in the right direction and hopes that it could lead to even greater success.
“Katie Seagrave has got enormous potential,” he said. “She has transferred from football and I think it was her first season last year and she was unbelievable.
“They do a try of the month competition, and she won that out of men and women – it was a length-of-the-field try. She is a fantastic ball runner.
“I think, potentially, she could go on one of the Premiership programmes, and that’s a young girl now stepping up to play women’s rugby.”
Such development would be a huge feather in the cap for both the player and the programme, and it is important to remember that Shelford already have a place in history in the women’s game.
Former player Shelley Rae was the first IRB Female Player of the Year Award, back in 2001.
Maybe there will be more to follow in the future?