This summer I was invited down to meet up with the West Swansea Hawks teams and coaches. They are a Welsh Rugby Union girls rugby hub in west Wales, operating with U8s, U9s, U11s, U13, U15 and U18s in the summer months.
The hubs are part of a WRU initiative to encourage more girls to play the game. They operate in the summer with games and festivals throughout that time.
I was particularly looking forward to seeing the Hawks in action because of all the great videos they had been posting on social media. More about the driving force behind that later.
The footage showed them training and playing, with lots of girls of all ages getting thoroughly involved. When you arrive at training, you can see why.
A SENSE OF EXCITEMENT
As I wandered across the field to the pitches, I fell in next to the U9s coach. He was busy fielding questions from his daughter who was skipping along beside him. When he mentioned they might be some contact, she was delighted.
Though it was a rainy evening at the start of the school holidays, over 60 players had arrived, along with plenty of coaches. As I began to chat to the coaches, the players were running around, kicking, passing, chatting and obviously enjoying each other’s’ company.
Above all, you can sense quickly this is a friendly club. Hub lead, Dave Graham-Woollard told me why: “Everyone trains together, we have lots of laughs and it sets us up for the rest of the session.”
By day, he’s a full-time physio in the NHS, and also works with senior teams in the Welsh Premiership. He’s a level 2 coach and Gowerton Girls lead coach in the winter. Like many grassroots coaches of young players, he was persuaded to get involved by his daughter, Charlotte, who wanted him to set up a team.
“We’ve been going for over four years, developing all the time. The numbers keep growing. The idea was to have an all-girls’ club because too many of the girls who were playing mixed rugby weren’t enjoying the experience. The boys didn’t pass them the ball, and they got left behind. When we started, we had around 20 girls registered. Now, we have over 130 across all the teams.
“Here, everyone is on a more level playing field. Also, because we mix the age groups in the warm-up, there’s a real sense of support between the teams.”
MORE THAN A RUGBY CLUB
“And the best bit,” says Dave, “Seeing my daughter grow as a coach and player in this group. This had led to other girls coming through as coaches.
“Beyond that, every week we can see the skills improving. Stepping back from the rugby, you also realise what a difference we make to the girls’ lives, more than when I coach with the boys. These girls, some of whom have some challenges of their own to deal with, find the club a supportive place where they can be themselves.”
The introduction of the summer season has expanded the number of teams that are available to play. The travel times, for the Hawks, are under 90 minutes. This is a vast improvement on a decade ago where there were only a few teams spread out across the south of Wales.
Another bonus is that teams are increasingly more evenly matched. I asked Dave how he dealt with the inevitable disparities between the new influx of teams.
“It’s happening less than it did. At senior level we can see Welsh internationals turning out on the same pitch as brand new players which can be an issue. And some sides still want to win at all costs. However, referees are getting better at understanding that the games need to be more even. And more referees are treating the girls game the same as the boys, which is great for rugby.
“Yet, we can’t be totally the other way by just always playing development matches. I think it’s important to create competitive situations in games, so players can test themselves and know where they stand.
“We find we can pick and choose which games to be competitive. The girls also self-select, taking themselves off or standing down in easy games. Also, they are quite prepared to change to five, six or seven a side if necessary. Our aim is to have all the girls playing and be inclusive in our rugby, but we have to sate the need for some competitive rugby, and allow the girls to push themselves to be the best they can be, we are driven by them.”
INCLUSIVE WARM-UPS AND LOTS OF SMILES
At that moment we could hear Dave’s daughter arranging the warm-up.
“It’s raining and no-ones complaining! Would the boys be the same?” says Dave. The warm-up has all the girls mixed together, with the older ones clearly looking after the younger ones, who, in turn, were loving the attention.
The U13s coach is Keith Pritchard, who’s also head coach for Gowerton Girls U15s. He’s played a good level rugby, and is a level 2 coach. As he coaches with the local U14 boys’ team, I asked him what was the difference.
“Firstly, the girls are better listeners. They constantly want to learn. Early on, I spent more of the session on the physical side of the game. Now, we spend far more time on skills. Here, I find I have to slow things down, mostly because they are keen on the detail, unlike the boys.”
“As you can see, we have a complete pathway for the girls, so they can sense the continuity. It helps that we have all the teams together.
“Also, the better girls are quite happy to give the new or weaker players a chance. We have some players who will be challenging for international honours in the future. They will step out, or dial down their physicality. Sometimes we suggest it and sometimes, they work it out for themselves.”
As we are chatting, Justine Baldwin-Pritchard, the social media and admin manager is taking pictures and videos of the girls in action. “They love seeing themselves on Twitter and Facebook. It attracts more players. I think we are the biggest hub in Wales now”.
She’s rightly proud of everything that’s happening here. Later on, she’s snapping a presentation where one of the player’s cut of her hair for a good cause. And then she’s back in the sheds sorting out kit and training times: Unseen work that makes an enormous difference to the players.
Charlotte, is Dave’s 19 year old daughter. She’s just finished her rugby development apprenticeship with WRU. This involves running rugby events/sessions for children, in schools and in the stadium, she also coaches the Gowerton girls U18s. Tonight, she ran the warm up for all the players.
I asked her about her experiences in schools. “With the younger ones, we focus on skill more than rugby itself, though it is a lot about handling and evasion skills.
“The younger groups love seaweed tag. This is where you have two sharks in a box. The other players run across and through the box. If they are touched, they do a seaweed dance on the spot. They are only freed by being tagged by one of their teammates.
“I really look up to Robyn Lock (Wales international and local sport development officer). She’s full of energy, engages with the kids and is always bubbly. She has conversations to gets them comfortable. That’s what I want to bring to my sessions.”
DEVELOPING PLAYERS AND COACHES
Plenty of the U18s Hawks girls are doing the coach education qualifications, leading to a Level 1, so they help out. Dave says the club is committed to all their coaches, and that means developing coaches of the future. During training I saw the senior girls, players like Molly Anderson-Thomasand Ffion Marshall who have just been selected for the Wales U18 touch team, supporting the U9s coach.
Another example is Paige Owen Morgan, who’s 16 and just passed her Level 1. Her favourite coaching activity, and the ones the girls love the most, is smashing into tackle tubes: “The players aim to tackle a part of the pad. We go through all the correct techniques – ring of steel, shoulder impact. We then make it harder, moving the tackle bags, or players start on the ground.”
She also echoes what is clear to me, that everyone’s friends here, and everyone is happy.
Finally, I spoke to Steve Commander, who invited me down to the club. A very experienced coach at all levels of the game, he loves what the Hawks have given to his two granddaughters.
“What you see here is more than about the skills and techniques. This is about girls enjoying playing together, and for many years to come. Whether they go on to become internationals, or just continue for the club, they are all treated equally.”
This is the future of girls’ rugby. It’s inclusive, friendly, competitive and energetic. If you can’t find your way to Gowerton on the outskirts of Swansea, then follow them on Twitter or Facebook to see them in action, both training and playing.
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