23 June 2020

Firwood Waterloo, out but not down: how the club ousted from Premier 15s continues to battle for women’s rugby

Firwood Waterloo have had a tough few months. Not only were they ousted from the Premier 15s, they also lost 12 players who all joined their northern neighbours Sale Sharks - the club who replaced them in the top flight.

Mhiari Grieve, Katie Houghton, Lisa Neumann, Beth Stafford, Carys Hall, Scarlett Fielding, Freya Hellin, Alicia Calton, Georgia Kyle, Daisy Hibbert-Jones, Elissa Jennings and Laura Perrin have all signed for Sharks ahead of next season. That’s a lot of talent leaving the club.

But while many may think the departures have left a bitter taste in Waterloo’s mouth, the reality is far from that.

“They go with our love. I said to some of them ‘you have to make some tough decisions’,” former player and Head of Women’s Rugby Christine Braithwaite told NewsChain.

"Somebody who has the potential to play for their country needs to be playing in the Premiership. We'd never hold them back.

“The girls who have left have done so with dignity, none have been a surprise to us. It's not a choice they wanted to make for a lot of them, to further their career it's something they have to do.”

Captain of Waterloo Rachael Thomas echoes Braithwaite’s sentiments but admitted it has been difficult to say goodbye to her friends.

"It’s been hard from a personal point of view, not so much that we’re losing players from the team and losing top players, it's more that your friends are moving on.

“I 100 per cent appreciate why they’ve gone. We had some young girls who had international aspirations and we had players who were already internationals, they want to play at the top level and you can’t deny them that opportunity.”

Braithwaite used to play for the club before becoming the Head of Women's Rugby (Firwood Waterloo)

Waterloo lost their place in the top flight as the three year cycle of the league came to an end and the Rugby Football Union announced a re-tendering process.

This saw Waterloo, Richmond, Worcester Warriors and Darlington Mowden Park Sharks all fighting for their spots in the Premiership. 

They had to place a bid with the governing body to state their case for inclusion and they were joined by budding women’s clubs Sale Sharks and Exeter Chiefs. 

So, six clubs were competing for four places for the next three year cycle of the Premier 15s. And then the announcement came in April, Waterloo and Richmond were out. Chiefs and Sharks were in.

Braithwaite says one of the most difficult things was having to let the players know while the country was in lockdown.

"It would’ve been nice to get everyone together, but [we couldn’t due to the pandemic].

"I recorded a video and sent it on WhatsApp. They knew it was a likelihood and I think the season had been null and voided by that point and there was an awful lot of sadness.

“It hadn’t quite come through on the pitch but we were building. We had a great core of players, probably not quite enough players of a certain standard but, yeah, it has been very very tough on the players.”

Once the next three years of the Premier 15s is up, in 2023, there is no guarantee what the re-tendering process will look like.

There could be a similar process to this year or there could be a possibility of re-introducing promotion and relegation into the game. This is something Braithwaite favours.

“I would like to see promotion and relegation, at the moment [the Premier 15s] it's like an American franchise, supporting the money,” she said.

"I can understand they want money for stability but there's a balance between money and the actual sport. I don’t want it to become like sports in America.

“People don’t play sports past college if they aren’t professional, do we want that world? I want to see more women playing.”

Thomas captains the northern side (Firwood Waterloo)

But for Waterloo, it’s about concentrating on the here and now.

The table doesn’t lie and the club know it was performances on the pitch over the last three years that weren’t enough to save them.

In the 2017/18 season they finished ninth, in the 2018/19 season they came ninth again and when the league was ruled null and void in March they were at the bottom of the table having won only one of their 12 matches.

Thomas says their position in the table meant it was inevitable they would leave the league.

“[My] initial reaction was disappointment but it was not massively unexpected,” she said. 

"I think because of the position we had been in in the league for the last three years, the funding we had in place and knowing what the competition was out there, as soon as we heard Sale were putting a bid in, we knew our bid was going to have to be spectacular.

"When a club has Premiership backing, men's backing and money is quite clearly obvious you have to do a hell of a lot to convince people otherwise. 

"I think as well if the RFU and others want the women’s Premiership to do well they'd need people to recognise the names [of clubs] you're going to be watching. So I think [the decision] is partly the money but also the name.”

Thomas and the rest of the team will now play in the Championship under former assistant, and now head coach Mike Smith. 

The captain is very happy with the appointment, saying he is the coach the club have been searching for.

“I think it’s a really really good move, he gets women's rugby in terms of how he works with the players.

"We have struggled to find a coach who really fits for us. Mike is really good at welcoming people and he likes to be involved and encourage and he's happy to work with players at this level.

“He did really well with some development girls last year, so moving forward with the players that remain at the club, he's a really good fit for that. Personally I really like him, I have a lot of time for him.”

Smith has been appointed Waterloo's head coach (Firwood Waterloo)

A key part of Smith’s new role is to recruit players to fill the void left by the mass exodus.

In his first interview since being given his new job, he told NewsChain that knowing the players he currently has will help him in his recruitment.

“The Premiership can be restricting in the travel, particularly for a club like Waterloo. With several trips to London [in a season] and some players who have families and children, they couldn’t play for the side when they played in the Premiership,” he said.

“So I think there are some players who will be able to come back and play more local rugby. But we also have some young players who came through the ranks last year in the development side who can really step up now.”

Smith has also explained why he’s happy to stay at a club who have just been demoted to a lower league.

He said: "For me it’s about developing players. Premiership rugby is always one of the aims but only one of many, why would I stay? Because I want to see the game and players develop and that’s the heart of it - I want to see this develop. Promotion is a by-product of that.”

Thomas has said she has 'a lot of time' for new head coach Mike Smith (Gill Burns)

And so what now for the future of Waterloo?

Recruitment has begun, a new head coach has been announced and the Championship awaits them, but what are the long term goals for this established club?

“We weren’t allowed to run central excellence [youth development] as we were a Premiership club, we couldn’t have an U18’s set up. Girls had to leave at 12 and couldn’t come back. So we are able to develop those women now, there’s a lot of positives we can take,” said Braithwaite.

"I believe we can get to that level [Premier 15s] again. We have three, five and ten year plans going in. I think some people thought we'd just disappear, people who didn't know me or Waterloo thought we'd disappear or become Sale - well no. 

"We are a very proud club with an incredibly proud tradition, we're not just going to disappear. It's not who we are, it's not what we'd do, we'd not just disregard our women.”

Whichever league they play in, whether it be the Championship or the Premiership, the club are prepared. Having met their Waterloo, they live to fight another day.

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