The introduction of Super Rugby next season - the new women's top flight league in England - has not been without its controversy. Ten teams will take their place in the league but missing will be the side who finished 3rd in the Premiership this season, Lichfield - who were unsuccessful in their application and who lost their appeal, along with Championship side Thurrock, against the decision last week. We spoke to Ian Cokayne, the Lichfield forwards coach, who shares his own personal view of recent events and the future for his club.
What do you think about the Super rugby comp and how will it benefit the game in England?
The women’s Super Rugby initiative is great for the women’s game in England; and hats off to the RFU for the initiative and the investment. I wholeheartedly support the vision of improved standards at the top of the women’s game. If I believed that Lichfield’s inclusion would hold back the game in any way I would be the first to stand aside.
I support the aspiration to spread the game geographically. The inclusion of Waterloo is important for the game in the North West and the North East will be well served by DMP. I am not wholly convinced if you look at a map that the awarded franchises have met the goal of spreading the game though.
Increasing the professionalism of support staff through club and RFU investment will have a positive effect on the field; providing you have a player pool of sufficient quantity and potential.
How do you reflect on the decision to omit Lichfield?
I am frustrated with the RFU’s decision. The franchises were awarded without sufficient weighting to the player base/pathway criteria. How will university teams develop the next 12-year-old Emily Scarratt? A very impressive gym alone won’t win rugby games.
While using independent experts sounds noble, it is a cop out. It allowed the RFU to abdicate responsibility for the decision. In addition, it is clear that these experts fundamentally don’t understand women’s rugby in England. It is different to netball and football – rugby simply doesn’t have the quality player base of these other sports. I understand that this improvement is the vision of Super Rugby – but this is not ‘Field of Dreams’ you cant tell Kevin Costner to ‘build it and they will come’. If you can’t pay players how do you get them to leave their jobs, families and homes to relocate to teams in the East Midlands or the North?
What do you make of the involvement of senior officials at the RFU in the setting up of the league?
I’m not sure people like Nigel Melville for example have been made fully aware of the issues surrounding women’s Super Rugby. Has he been briefed that all clubs in Super Rugby can field two sides? I hope I’m wrong, but I think the Super B League will struggle. Do they understand the implications to the Championship? Lichfield’s Greens came second in the Championship North. That league included Waterloo and Loughborough. So with those teams promoted to Super Rugby what will the competition be like in the Championship?
Will you continue to fight the RFU’s decision?
The decision has been made and we have to get behind it to make it work. It is crucial to the women’s game that we move it forward. If we don’t lead the way in this country we will be following the likes of Canada, USA and NZ, who are improving their programmes year on year.
As a club this means we have to take on board the criticism from the RFU and find ways to improve. We need to take them up on their promise to work with the unsuccessful bidders. It’s important that we develop a ‘road map’ for meeting the Super Rugby requirements at the earliest opportunity.
What will the Super Rugby league look like in 3 years?
In an ideal world there would by 10 franchises following the Harlequin’s model - well-resourced community development programmes coupled with outstanding governance and support structures for athletic excellence. In three years time I hope this is reality. As Lichfield, we have to find ways to keep up, and not let the gap grow too big to bridge when we eventually win back our place in the top flight. We have to do this without the £225,000 investment from the RFU that the top 10 clubs will receive and the loss of 25-30 players.
How do you recover as a club from this decision?
We can’t keep feeling sorry for ourselves. Our partners from HBP pointed out that pity is contagious and corrosive – so like all winners we have to get up when we can’t, lick our wounds and get on with making our future. We weren’t perfect and we have opportunities to improve. We have lots of diverse communities locally that we need to reach out to. We could evolve our relationship with Leicester Tigers. We need to work harder to attract cross-over athletes, and we need to increase our presence in local schools, colleges and unis. Our talent ID and age-grade pathway has been good – but it could be better. We also need to grow the support that has been so overwhelming at this difficult time.
Luckily our medical staff and support partners are standing by us. So nutrition support from Next Level Nutrition, analysis from Proview Sports Academy, Human behaviour support from Pro-noctis, and strength and conditioning from NS Performance UK plus physios Rachel Proctor and Brian Burrows will give us ‘Super’ support as we move forward.
What’s your next move?
Our first responsibility is to our players. We will be sitting down with all of them to work out what is best for them and their rugby aspirations. I think this will require some tough love – almost forcing some players to leave. If we look at our players, we have 13 current internationals and an additional 10-15 with realistic XVs or 7s international ambition. So I estimate we will lose 25-30 top quality players – not easy to recover from. We need to see what coaches are appointed at other Super clubs to help players choose the right clubs for them and their life/rugby goals. So our forwards will be advised to go to clubs with excellent forwards coaching etc. We will make it clear that they go with our blessing; however, they are welcome back at any time. After all they are whanau!!
Do you have any messages for the Super rugby teams?
I sincerely wish all the Super franchises good luck at this exciting time, and keep moving the game forward because Lichfield is coming after your spot!