Online Sport Editor Harry Scott-Munro talks to former EUWRFC Head Coach Jo Yapp about her goals for Worcester Warriors and the importance of BUCS Rugby.
After a highly successful stint in charge of EUWRFC that bore two consecutive BUCS titles at Twickenham in 2018 and 2019, Jo Yapp’s next challenge is to turn Worcester Warriors Women from perennial strugglers into a competitive Premier 15s side.
Yapp departed EUWRFC in 2019 after consecutive finals victories over Hartpury and Durham, taking on the role of skills coach at her former club, Worcester Warriors Women. After an inauspicious start to the season, with Worcester sitting bottom of the table after four defeats, Yapp was appointed Director of Rugby, replacing Roy Davies and tasked with stemming a ferocious tide that had seen the Warriors concede 185 points in those opening four games.
Yapp, a former scrumhalf, represented her country on 70 occasions, as well as appearing at three successive World Cups between 1998 and 2006, where she captained an England side that made it to a second successive final.
Under her guidance last season, Worcester steadied the ship, picking up three victories from the next eight matches, including a notable 15-12 victory over a Bristol Bears side packed with many of Yapp’s former EUWRFC players as Worcester moved off the bottom of the table and up to 8th. During this period, the Warriors were also successful in the retendering process to continue to play in the Premier 15s league until at least 2023, before the season was curtailed and declared null and void after the outbreak of Covid-19.
With their position in the league now secure, Yapp’s immediate goal for her side is to ‘continue to build as a squad and develop an environment that players can thrive in and want to be a part of.’ It has been this positive mindset and working environment created by Yapp that has seen so many players buy into the Warriors project. Senior England internationals Lydia Thompson and Laura Keates have re-signed for next season, alongside EUWRFC alumni Zoe Heeley. She will be joined next season by former university teammate, scrumhalf Caity Mattinson as she returns from Canada. Yapp sees them both as crucial in ‘help[ing] to drive standards and support the environment [Warriors] are trying to develop.’ As well as Mattinson, Yapp has been busy recruiting international talent for next season. Canadian fullback Paige Farries has joined, alongside England international backrow Jo Brown
Of course, lockdown has had an impact on all facets of society, not just rugby. This has provided a challenge for clubs in keeping their players fit and healthy, even more so in the women’s game, where only a handful of players in the Premier 15s are fulltime professionals. This is something that is not lost on Yapp and whilst Worcester have focused on ‘S+C programmes and skills sessions,’ their squad has had players that have been ‘working on the frontline, furloughed and those that are students studying at home,’ making it difficult to create a uniform programme for all players to follow. It has been a process of adapting where necessary for Yapp and whilst the retendering process ‘didn’t really hinder’ the club, Yapp admits that the uncertainty over when sport will return has made planning difficult.
Women’s rugby has grown in stature over the past few seasons, helped by England’s impressive record on the international stage. However, with Tyrells no longer sponsoring the Premier 15s next season, more needs to be done to continue to increase interest and awareness in the women’s game. November’s dramatic international between England and France at Sandy Park saw Worcester winger Lydia Thompson score late on to secure a 17-15 victory in front of 9699 fans, reinforcing the appetite for women’s rugby. Yapp aims to ‘inspire young players and get more people along to support the Women’s game’ at Worcester with the goal of increasing crowds and continuing to grow the game. Next season, Worcester are aiming to ‘run double headers alongside the men to showcase the Women’s game to a new audience’ in the hope of attracting more spectators to their standalone games as a result, in a similar fashion to league rivals Harlequins, a move that eventually saw the side host a standalone women’s game attracting 4,837 fans to the Stoop, a record for a women’s club match in England.
As for continuing to grow the player pool in England, this season has seen the first national Women’s BUCS League created, with the six top university sides in the UK competing, with a second division of a further six universities below. This has been an incredibly positive step for women’s university rugby however, more can still be done. Yapp is adamant that the university pathway will continue to be a crucial part of women’s rugby player development, with it serving as ‘an opportunity to talent transfer athletes’ from other sports. Yapp also sees it as a crucial way of discovering new talent since ‘many players did not play rugby until they joined university.’ A prime example of this is the aforementioned Zoe Heeley, who first took up rugby at Exeter University in 2016. Four years later, she is now an important part of Worcester’s Premier 15s side. If it were not for the opportunity university rugby presented her, her talent may have not been discovered by any of the top English sides. Seeing players progress to ‘join clubs when they leave [university]’ was something Yapp enjoyed personally whilst coach of EUWRFC. Now in her role at Worcester, she has the opportunity to search out more of these players, giving them the stage and opportunity to compete at a level their talent deserves.
Whilst uncertainty still remains over the return to competitive rugby during the current Covid-19 pandemic, one thing that is certain is that Worcester are in a position of strength the club has not been in over the previous few seasons. With Yapp at the helm and a young, hungry squad being built for next season, Worcester appear finally in a position to move away from the perennial struggles at the bottom of the table, with a chance to look above them rather than over their shoulders.