Elise Hamersley talks to three current and former members of EUWRFC, charting their progress into the top level of women’s club rugby.
The women’s rugby Allianz Premier 15s kicked off Saturday October 10th with the new Exeter Chiefs Women’s team making their debut in the league. This season boasts a large group of current Exeter University students and alumni in action across a range of clubs including Bristol Bears, Exeter Chiefs, Worcester Warriors, Harlequins and Wasps.
Exeter Alumni and Worcester Warrior’s back Zoe Heeley has experienced a meteoric rise from rugby beginner to now starting for a top flight premiership club. Having only picked up rugby in her first year of university, Heeley is now in her fifth season of the sport and currently one of the top try scorers of the 20/21 Allianz Premier 15s, as we move into the first rest weekend of the season. She epitomises the fast development rate of the sport and Exeter’s ability to turn novices into elite level athletes.
“I started playing rugby in my first year of uni having never played before, and having only ever watched one game! I enjoyed playing for Exeter’s second team during my first year. I was then lucky enough to play for the first team during my second and third years.“Zoe Heeley, Worcester Warrior and Exeter Alumni
At the other end of the spectrum, Exeter Chiefs prop and current Exeter University masters student Jessica Thomas started playing rugby when she was 11 years old at Devonport Services RFC, who she stayed with for her youth rugby experience. Thomas owes her attraction to the game to the inclusivity of size and body type rugby offers: “Growing up, I have always been labelled the ‘bigger one’ and playing rugby allowed me to embrace that”.
Both Thomas and Heeley were part of the back-to-back BUCS Championship wins of EUWRFC in 2018 and 2019. As Exeter rebuilds in 2020 and 2021, second year Merryn Doidge represents the new, exciting talent and direction of the club. Like Thomas, Doidge recently made the move from Bristol Bears to the newly formed Exeter Chiefs Women’s squad. Starting rugby aged 6 for her local club team Liskeard Looe, Doidge worked her way through the age groups, Cornwall, the South West, England Women’s U18 and beyond.
“I was massively welcomed at my local club and was the only girl playing up until about u10s. As the sport grows there is beginning to be more girls joining at this age. I definitely got the same opportunity as the boys”Merryn Doidge, EUWRFC player and Exeter Chief
The progress of these women, be it from grassroots or university, is indebted to their willingness to pick up a rugby ball for the first time. What advice do these premiership players have for women who are thinking about taking up rugby? Thomas calls upon EUWRFC Head Coach Poppy Leitch’s “no fear thinking” mantra: “Coming to a session for the first time is scary, I still remember my first training session when I was 11 years old. But if you go in with the mindset that you can do anything and throw yourself into whatever challenge you’re presented with then you will be fine”. Zoe Heeley says “don’t be afraid to give it a go! I really wish I’d been able to start playing earlier as there’s so many opportunities. Women’s rugby is such an inclusive sport and there’s a position for every body type/ skill set”.
And to women who are looking to aim for higher levels and the premiership? Thomas passes on the advice “always do your extras. ‘Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard’: I was told this phrase when playing u18s South West rugby and it has stuck with me to this day. You have to be willing to put in that effort, come to training 15 minutes early to get boots on and start working on your weakness”.
For all the talent progressing through the levels, the women’s premiership still faces obstacles. In order to continue this high trajectory of rugby development, the general public must be able to view the women’s game. It is essential to inspire the next generation of young girls to take up rugby and this is potential simply isn’t actualised under current coverage. Only one match of the five played each weekend under Allianz Premier 15s is streamed online and via BT Sport. The progression, funding and sponsorship capabilities of women’s rugby relies on the awareness and engagement generated by coverage such as this. Heeley further points out “women’s rugby is gradually professionalising”, but “the reality is that almost all Premiership players have to work full-time alongside their rugby career in order to support themselves, which is a stark difference to the salaries their male counterparts receive”.
Despite these challenges, elite female rugby players such as Heeley, Thomas and Doidge have proved that it is achievable for young women to succeed in the sport. Whether they developed from grassroots or took up rugby at university, talent and hard work sees a diverse and inclusive range of current and former EUWRFC players take to the pitch this premiership season. We eagerly await their achievements.