A former Wales rugby international has claimed the demise of “one of the best teams in Wales” is the “beginning of the end for women’s rugby” and has accused the Welsh Rugby Union of mismanagement and not caring.
Swansea Women RFC announced on Sunday that their team was no more, citing Wales internationals being advised to play in England during the pandemic to maintain competitive rugby action, retirement and some being unable to commit as their main reasons for folding.
A club statement read: “With a heavy heart we are sad to announce that Swansea Women’s RFC are no more.
“It goes without saying this wasn’t an easy decision, however, following the position our international players were put in to play across the border or risk their position in the World Cup squad and then numerous players moving away, retiring or not being able to commit, we were left with no choice.”
Last summer, as elite sport began to return amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Welsh Rugby Union stated that its short-term intention was for Wales Women internationals to train and play in England’s Premier 15s – the top women’s rugby union league – while the WRU was working more closely with those clubs to maximise medical and strength and conditioning resources. Longer-term, the stated plan is to “establish two high performance centres in Wales, hopefully leading to the development of two competitive ‘super clubs’.”
But former Wales Triple Crown winner Gemma Hallett has claimed the loss of Swansea Women – unaided by WRU policy on Wales internationals – “signals the beginning of the end for women’s rugby”.
“The capitulation of the most successful team of recent years is a result of WRU mismanagement at both elite and grassroots game,” she said.
“We told you. Over and over again. You didn’t give a s**t.
“Let’s be perfectly clear: The most inept union of a top tier nation voluntarily sat back and watched the grassroots and elite pathway decimate and collapse in the last decade. The WRU are an embarrassment.”
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The folding of Swansea Women comes amid the backdrop of several areas of concern within women’s rugby in Wales, most notably one-sided results during the Six Nations, head coach Warren Abrahams having left his three-year contracted role just nine months into the job (and one year out from a World Cup), years of coaching instability and a lack of clarity on player contracts as internationals balance work/education with training and playing.
A mid-term independent review into women’s performance rugby in Wales and what improvements can be made, which was set to be completed by late June, is ongoing.
A Welsh Rugby Union statement said: “It is unfortunate to learn that any team feels they are unable to carry on, either by staying together as a group or by recruiting enough new players to ensure their sustainability. We have worked with Swansea Women for some time to support their efforts both to try to stay at St Helen’s and in helping players to find appropriate new clubs once a decision was made to leave Swansea RFC.
“Notwithstanding this disappointment, with restrictions easing further following the pandemic which ruled out all competitive community rugby in Wales from March 2020 to July 2021, we are buoyed by the enthusiasm we are seeing across the community game in Wales, especially in the female game.
“There is a 20% growth in player registrations across the female game for 2021/22 compared to 2019/20 and there will be 20 more active teams at U15 and U18 level, which bodes well for the future of the game and a number of clubs and Female Hubs are running additional teams. The Female Hubs, of which there are 34 around Wales, are proving to be sustainable models for nurturing players, coaches, referees and volunteers, providing a clear and successful pathway for women and girls from mini and junior rugby through to U18 and senior level, either within the Hub itself or with growing links to partners clubs.
“To help restart community rugby in Wales, we are currently going through a recruitment process to increase staffing, including additional specific roles to grow the female game; and we will be running an eight week programme of female skills development centres from U12s to U18s around Wales during the autumn along with senior Talent ID days.”
Swansea Women RFC’s statement added: “It’s a sad day for us all and never did we think we’d be in this position, but when it stops being fun and becomes hard work then you know enough’s enough.
“It has been a pleasure to play for Swansea RFC for the last three years and we would like to thank them for the support they have provided, especially Alun Donovan and Stephen Hughes.
“We would like to wish all our girls the best of luck in their next venture and hope we can get together for a pint soon.”
The news was met with sadness from former and current Wales internationals, including captain Siwan Lillicrap.
“Gutted for many reasons,” she said.
“Many fond memories playing in white, from the early days moving to St Helen’s, being double champions and playing with some of my besties, just to name a few. Thinking of everyone it’s affected and truly hope everyone still manages to play the sport we love.”
Wales and Saracens second-row Georgia Evans dubbed the development “devastating”.
“It’s such a shame to see it fall at such a vital time in women’s rugby in Wales. We want to play our rugby in Wales, in the clubs that made us, that moulded us. I’m scared that eventually we won’t have a home to come back to.”
Wales hooker and former Swansea Women captain Robyn Lock admitted she did not want to leave the club, but said “as players we weren’t given much choice”.
“The more that fold the less impact women’s rugby will have in Wales!!”
Former Wales international Alecs Donovan, who stepped away from Test rugby on the eve of this year’s Six Nations, said it was a sad day for women’s rugby in Wales.
“If this doesn’t show how much the game is struggling in Wales, I’m not sure what does. We’ve gone back 1,000 steps it feels like. I’ll never forget the amazing times with Swansea Women RFC.”
Ex-Wales Sevens international Chris Knight said of Swansea Women folding: “Pretty damning news for the Women’s game and Welsh rugby in general. If this doesn’t highlight the disadvantages which women play at then I don’t know what will. Surely more can be done by the WRU..?”