‘This is the evolution of a sport – it doesn’t happen overnight’on May 21, 2021 at 5:22 am

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Teenage Wasps prop Maud Muir is looking at a possible future as a full-time professional England player. For her director of rugby Giselle Mather, things were very different.

Maud Muir in training
Venue: Twickenham Stoop Date: Saturday, 22 May Kick-off: 12:30 BST

At the same age, her director of rugby Giselle Mather had international ambitions too, but getting paid for them was far from her mind.

Instead, after Mather won the World Cup with England in 1994, she wondered how to pay the hotel bill for her stay during the tournament.

As Wasps prepare to face Harlequins in a Premier 15s semi-final that will take place in front of fans at Twickenham Stoop – home of men’s Premiership side Harlequins – Mather and Muir’s differing stories show how far the game has come.

Saturday’s match – which will be televised by BT Sport – is a sign of progress, but the work is not done yet and the young tight-head prop wants more.

Muir joined England’s Six Nations training camp for the first time in April, experiencing the lifestyle of the 28 Red Roses given full-time contracts at the start of the season.

The England XVs side has been professional since 2019, making rugby a viable career option for a player Mather says has a “very bright” future in the game.

Muir’s Six Nations experience was somewhat different from her career at Wasps, where she had to tout for sponsorship on Twitter in order to pay her subs this season.

“The structure [of the England camp] is so much different to Wasps,” Muir says.

“Everyone is working in the Premiership, or most people are. In the England set-up, everyone is contracted or semi-contracted.

“You have a full day and you can relax in the evenings.”

‘This is the evolution of a sport’ – Mather

Muir says it is “quite crazy” that she would have “to pay to play” if she had not managed to secure sponsorship.

But she and Mather are agreed on this: women’s rugby is going in the right direction.

Mather took up rugby aged 19 at university – because before that, she “didn’t know girls could play” – whereas Muir has been honing her skills since she was five.

The director of rugby says her aim is to be able to pay all her players to take a day or two off work a week to train, with the ultimate ambition being full-time professional Premier 15s squads.

She has witnessed how far the sport has come in the past few decades, but Mather will not be getting ahead of herself.

“This is the evolution of a sport,” she explains.

“It doesn’t just go overnight where everybody gets what they want. If you rush it, it won’t be sustainable.

“Then athletes will give up current jobs, start getting jobs as rugby players and two years later there is no finance.”

‘Young girls now believe they can do it’

Mather was a Wasps player in the 1990s and returned as head coach from 2002-2004 before taking up the director of rugby role in 2016.

A year later, England’s Rugby Football Union invested millions to establish the Premier 15s league and it is now in its fourth season, although the third was not completed because of coronavirus disruption.

In her time with Wasps, Mather has seen the side go from training on tennis courts to being the premier team at Twyford Avenue , their current ground, and she is “immensely proud” to have been part of that journey.

“A young girl looking at it now can believe they can do it and there is a career pathway for them,” she adds.

“We’re not finished by any stretch of the imagination. In the past four years with the Tyrrells, now Allianz, Premier 15s you can see the massive progress.

“If the next four years look like these four years, the girls that play the game are going to be in a great place.”

‘Competition has been crazy this season’

The immediate aim for Mather and Muir is to help Wasps reach a first-ever Premier 15s final.

To do so, they must beat Harlequins, who in February overturned a 19-5 deficit to win 20-19 and maintain their unbeaten Premier 15s record against Wasps.

Mather’s side have made it to the semi-finals every season and she says this is the “best chance” they’ve “ever had” of making it a step further, with Muir adding there is “a certain buzz” around the team.

Both Premier 15s finals so far have featured Quins and now two-time champions Saracens, who play Loughborough in Saturday’s other semi-final.

But it does not feel as if the line-up for that match on 30 May is a foregone conclusion and Mather is expecting both games to be as competitive and exciting as the rest of the season has been.

“These players are getting better and better, not just in my squad but right across the league,” she says.

“The games this year – while I am supposed to be coach, at times I have been thoroughly entertained as a fan because of the quality of the games. The level of competition has been crazy.

“The semi-finals and final will be a very good spectacle for the fans to attend or to watch.”

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