By Gareth James
Full-time contracts have been awarded to a dozen of Wales’ leading female players by the Welsh Rugby Union for the first time.
Alisha Butchers, Natalia John, Siwan Lillicrap, Carys Phillips, Gwenllian Pyrs, Donna Rose and Keira Bevan, Hannah Jones, Jasmine Joyce, Ffion Lewis, Lisa Neumann, Elinor Snowsill, are the first full-time athletes.
The 12-month deals, a first for the women’s game in Wales, came into force this week with players and management based at the National Centre of Excellence.
The 12 full-time athletes will be joined by 15 other players who will be awarded ‘retainer contracts’, those names have not yet been announced.
“This is a very proud day for us as a governing body,” Steve Phillips, the WRU chief executive said.
“I am very pleased to be able to say we have our first full-time female players who will represent Wales on the international stage.
“This is set to be a very demanding but unforgettable year for women’s rugby and these players – along with the players on retainer contracts and other squad members – will benefit from the full range of our expert on and off-field support to help them reach their potential.
FIRST FULL-TIME CONTRACTS AWARDED TO 12 #WALESWOMEN PLAYERS
— Welsh Rugby Union (@WelshRugbyUnion) January 12, 2022
“This is the start of an exciting journey for women and girls in Wales.”
The move comes after a prolonged period of turmoil in the women’s games in Wales, with coaches leaving and arguments raging over the level of support given to players.
Last year, 100 former internationals signed a letter demanding improvements and a petition in support was signed by over 4,000 people.
Former Wales wing Nigel Walker was recruited by UK Sport as the Union’s performance director and was given a priority task of urgently improving the women’s game – including delivering on the earlier promise to hand out professional contracts.
“It’s been a tough but enjoyable process. Credit to all the players who have given us selection headaches,” Ioan Cunningham, Wales Women head coach said.
“We are all now super excited to get the programme started.
“Talent and ability was the first element in our selection process and then the potential growth of the individual player along with their attitude.
— Welsh Rugby Union (@WelshRugbyUnion) January 12, 2022
“The conversations offering contracts were nice ones to have if often quite emotional. Some of the players had logistic issues to work through from a personal and professional perspective, but it’s great to have them at the National Centre of Excellence now as we start to put the foundations in place for improvement.
“We have developed close working relationships with the players’ Allianz Premier 15s clubs and I’m confident our programme will prove beneficial for all parties.”
The 2022 Women’s Six Nations starts on March 26, with Wales Women travelling to Ireland for their first match of the competition. They will also travel away to England, alongside hosting Scotland, France and Italy during the tournament.
Meet the first full-time Wales Women players:
No 8. 40 caps. Bristol Bears.
First played rugby for Waunarlwydd Senior Women aged 17 having waited patiently for a number of years on the sidelines until she was old enough. It was a similar story at senior international level, her first cap coming aged 28 against Ireland in the 2016 Six Nations having been on the fringes of squads for a period of time. Having reached that milestone, Siwan has held on to the Wales jersey, hardly missing a game since. Captain since autumn 2019.
“This is going to change us, our lives and Welsh women’s rugby for this next 12 months and beyond. We are all so excited to start and that just shows what it means to us and for Welsh rugby, it’s massive.
“We are in a professional environment now, there are no excuses for us as players but we are looking forward to that opportunity. The aim is we make strides forward between now and the Six Nations and then we kick on again ahead of the Rugby World Cup.
“We are really proud rugby people and we are looking forward to changing the face of women’s rugby.”
Siwan has resigned her post as Swansea University Head of Rugby.
Super grateful for the opportunity to have my dream job. Very excited for the year ahead, this opportunity is not only life changing for myself; The impact this can have on Welsh Womens Rugby is massive.
Thank you to everyone who has got us here. Diolch @WelshRugbyUnion ❤️ https://t.co/TmndKB6PYu
— Siwan Lillicrap (@SiwanLillicrap) January 12, 2022
“I’ve loved my time at Swansea Uni but I can’t wait to pursue my dream of being a professional rugby player.”
Flanker. 32 Caps. Bristol Bears. Starting playing mixed rugby aged 6 for mixed mini and junior teams at Bynea and Llanelli Wanderers before playing for Carmarthen Quins Girls and Penybanc. Played for Scarlets and Wales at regional and international age grade before moving to Worcester and then Bristol.
First cap against Ireland in 2016 Six Nations.
“I tried other sports but rugby has always been my passion. It has given me so much despite the ups and downs you encounter along the way. Rugby has allowed me to grow as a person, enabled me to travel the world and be the person I am today.
“Injury is always a factor but having a positive attitude and good support system has allowed me to be here today which I wouldn’t have thought possible a year ago.
“I couldn’t have got through the tough times and be here today without my family. Now I have the chance to see what I can do in a full-time programme.”
Alisha has put a job with Active Carmarthenshire on hold for this opportunity.
Highlights from Saturday’s @Premier15s defeat
— Bristol Bears Women (@BristolBearsW) December 20, 2021
“My employers have been so understanding and flexible, allowing me to take unpaid leave for a year to put everything into this. I love that job too and I’m so grateful to have that to fall back on but my whole focus now will be on making myself the best athlete I can be for the world cup. I’m lucky with my club Bristol too and it’s great club and country are working together to make sure the programmes complement each other.”
Scrum half. 38 caps. Bristol Bears. Playing mixed mini and junior rugby at Pontarddulais. Picked up rugby again at Neath Port Talbot College where she was picked up by the Ospreys 7s set-up and went on to represent Wales Sevens at U18 and senior level. First cap age 17 v England (2015).
“To be given one of the first full-time contracts means so much. It means we can try and reach our full potential. I’ve been working towards this day for a long time. It’s very special to be one of the first full-time players, I just want to keep improving every day now.
“It means so much to my family too. I have a lot to thank my dad for, he always pushes me to be better and both my parents are so supportive, they travel everywhere to support me.”
Keira is a qualified personal trainer.
Lock. Bristol Bears. 22 caps. Wales debut v Scotland 2018.
Started rugby in 2014 while at Swansea University studying for a Materials Engineering degree. Siwan Lillicrap was Natalia’s first coach!
“Growing up in a pub, rugby was always a big part of my life and once I started playing, my dad, who played rugby himself, became my biggest influence.
“I’ve always wanted to be the best player I can be, win a Wales cap and make my family proud.
“This is an incredible opportunity and I’m so excited to see how much I can improve over the next 12 months.”
Natalia leaves her post as physics teacher at Ysgol y Gwendraeth. “I’m sad to leave my job but I would tell my students to follow their dreams and now it’s time for me to follow mine.”
So excited for this season! https://t.co/K4rDtEvboa
— Natalia (@TaliaJohn04) July 13, 2020
Centre. Gloucester-Hartpury. 32 caps. International debut: Scotland, 2015. Started playing mixed rugby in primary school in Brynamman then joined Crynant RFC.
“My family are very rugby-orientated it, lived and breathed rugby and I’m very grateful for their support. I did all sports growing up and it was only when I got picked up for regional U18s that I had to focus on rugby but all the other sports definitely helped too.
“It’s an honour to be able to take up this contract, more time for skills, fitness, analysis, recovery. Really excited to get going and see how far we can go individually and as a team.”
Hannah has taken a break from her PGCE studies at Cardiff Met to take up this opportunity.
Wing. 20 caps. Double Olympian. Jazz played for Wales Sevens and represented Team GB at the Rio Olympics before making her full international debut against Scotland in 2017. First played for St David’s RFC age 6.
“I love doing what I’m doing, I’m motivated my targets – whether that’s an Olympics or a Rugby World Cup.
“After being full-time this last year, to have the chance to do that again is what you want as a rugby player. To be able to focus on one thing is the key and the WRU and club programmes should help each other.
“It’s going to make a huge difference for 12 players to be full-time, it’s just what we need as a squad moving into the Six Nations and then the Rugby World Cup. I can’t wait!
Jazz is completing her PGCE teaching placement with University of Wales Trinity St David this month before joining the programme full-time.
Some very exciting times ahead Something we have all waited patiently for, and finally being given our opportunity. Can’t wait for the challange and live my dream job for another year https://t.co/KqSvCF8Dkp
— JasmineJoyce (@joyce_jaz) January 12, 2022
Scrum-half. Worcester Warriors. 17 caps. Wales debut v Hong Kong November 2018.
Started playing mixed rugby at 6. Had a break without a team until college when she was selected for Scarlets U18s and never looked back.
“I think it’s every player’s dream to commit 100% to rugby. For all of us to have this opportunity to really push ourselves is huge and show the next generation that dreams can become a reality.
“A year ago I had just had shoulder injury, I had been in and out of selection for Wales so this seemed a long way off but it goes to show that you can come back stronger from knock-downs.”
Ffion is taking a year’s sabbatical from her post as PE and Welsh teacher at Bishop Hedley School, Merthyr.
“The school have been incredible, they have been so supportive, especially as I’m still new to the school.
“I try to be a role model to my pupils so hopefully by doing this I can show them they can achieve their goals.
Ffion has drawn strength from all her rugby-loving family including brother Flex who is a champion body-builder.
“All my family are hugely supportive and my brother Flex is an inspiration too. His ‘believe to achieve’ motto is something we all adhere to.”
Prop. Six caps. Saracens.
A friend introduced Donna to rugby aged 16 at Wimbourne RFC before spending 12 years with Trojans. Donna was invited to join Saracens in the summer of 2019, converted to tighthead prop and was called up by Wales last season, earning caps in all six of the games played in that time.
“This is beyond a dream. It couldn’t even feature in my dreams before being brought into the Wales set-up a year ago. I couldn’t believe it when I had the phone call.
“But now it’s a reality and I’m going to enjoy every second. I want to do everyone proud and give 100%. I’m still new to the scrum so technically this will be a game-changer along with the physical benefits.”
Donna has given up a job as a carpenter to commit to this opportunity.
— bpdvideo (@bpdvideo) May 15, 2021
Wing. 22 caps. International debut Scotland 2018.
“I would say I dabbled with rugby at St David’s School, Pembrokeshire and University in Manchester. “I didn’t really believe I was any good or commit to a team until I was selected for the 2018 Six Nations after playing for the Scarlets in a Super Six competition. It was only really then that I took rugby more seriously, once I saw what being part of a performance environment was all about.
My studies always came first until then and I hadn’t really committed to any team.
“I was shocked to be offered a full-time contract, but chuffed to bits.
Lisa has left her position as a Senior Clinical Trials Data Manager to take up this contract.
“It will be great to have the time to work on skills like my kicking game and handling skills can always get better.
“The biggest thing for me based in Manchester, is that I will be able to train, recover and be the best I can be in the build-up to the Six Nations and world cup.”
What a return to international rugby. A hatrick and a player of the match for the former Welsh skipper. Well done Carys Phillips. https://t.co/Wsuca8CMI4
— Scrumqueens – Women’s Rugby (@ScrumQueens) November 13, 2021
Hooker 54 caps. Worcester Warriors. First cap against Ireland 2013 Six Nations.
First played for Skewen U8s then Neath RFC until leaving home for Cardiff Met and Bristol. Played for Swansea before joining Worcester in 2019.
“Playing for Worcester over the last two years has been brilliant for me. The coaching there is excellent and the standard of games in the Allianz that makes you a better player too.
“When I was invited to the autumn squad, I wanted to do my best and enjoy myself. I must have impressed Ioan to get a contract, something I never thought would happen.
“Now we’re here and we have to make everything count. I’ve really enjoyed this week. It’s going to be a massive lifestyle change for us all but if we take the opportunity with both hands I’m sure we will see a big difference in our performance. My whole family are my biggest supporters and they were chuffed to bits when I told them the news.”
Carys has resigned as an adaptive sports coach at Worcester Warriors to take up this opportunity. “Worcester have been so supportive but who knows what will happen in the future.”
Prop. 16 caps. Sale Sharks. First cap against Italy in 2017.
Took up rugby formerly aged 16 when Clwb Rygbi Nant Conwy formed an U18 girls’ team but had previously enjoyed playing with her brothers and sisters on the family farm near Ysbyty Ifan in the Conwy Valley where she is also a renowned sheepdog trainer.
Gwenllian was an Urdd/WRU apprentice and WRU hub officer in North Wales schools for three years but has recently started an Access to Health Care course in Coleg Llandrillo with a view to training as a midwife in the future.
She said, “My father has been a big influence on my rugby career so far, pushing me to be the best I can be. I want to do well for my family, friends and every coach who has helped me along the way.
“Mae’n anrhydedd ag yn fraint cael fy newis yn un o’r chwaraewyr merched cyntaf i gael cynnig cytunteb llawn amser gyda Undeb Rygbi Cymru ac mae’n dangos bod gwaith caled a dyfalbarhad yn talu ar ei ganfed.”
✅ Strong start to the season
Striving for improvement
The challenges ahead
— Bristol Bears Women (@BristolBearsW) January 7, 2022
Outside-half. Bristol Bears. 61 caps. Wales debut 2009 v Sweden.
Started off as a footballer and played other sports too. Picked up touch rugby in school – Ysgol Plasmawr – where former Wales prop Catrin Edwards was PE teacher. Ended up playing at Principality Stadium which was an incredible experience and winning Welsh schools touch tournament three years in a row. Went on to join Cardiff Quins before being selected for Wales U20 and the rest as they say is history.
“I owe so much to the support of my family. Playing for your country is one thing but building a long-term international career is a whole other challenge. It’s been tough at times but I’m so glad I’ve stuck at it. Competing at the Commonwealth Games in Australia was a pivotal moment for me, playing for the Barbarians in Colorado – with my parents watching – was also incredible. And now to be rewarded with one of these contracts is hard to describe, certainly the pinnacle of my career. It’s not something I thought would happen for me.
“I’m hoping it will make a huge difference to my game. As a fly-half, skills are vital, you have to be an all-rounder. I’m hoping to work on my individual skills along with fitness and strength too while having time for recovery.
“As a team, it will be a challenge but the way we all respond is key as we move forward.”
Elinor has left her position at School of Hard Knocks.
“I loved my time at School of Hard Knocks but now can focus solely on rugby career which is a privilege.”