This weekend Aylesford Bulls take on Bristol in the English Women's Premiership Final. We caught up with joint Head Coach Karen Findlay about the team's growth this season following the merger with Harlequins; following her own move from Richmond and just weeks after her side lifted the National Cup title.
Aylesford Bulls play Bristol this Sunday at Sixways Stadium at 3pm. The final will be streamed on EnglandRugby.com. Bristol finished top of the table after the regular season with 12 wins from 14 games, while Ayelsford finished in third. In two games against each other this season, the sides have won one game each.
Firstly congratulations on getting to the final, tell us what you're expecting this weekend from Bristol and where you need to make improvements from the semis?
We are in no doubt that we are going to have to put in a strong performance that’s improved in some areas from our semi final. Bristol are a really complete side, have some strong individuals who look to play high-tempo rugby with a desire to hit hard running lines and move the ball to space quickly, and have deservedly finished top of the table through being consistent across the season. We’ve worked hard on the training ground over the past three weeks and it's now down to the players to deliver that complete performance. As individuals it will be the aggregate of small gains that will make the difference in what I am sure will be a highly contested game, especially in defensive efforts. I'm sure both teams will be committed to producing a final that shows what talent there is in the women’s game, shows just how exciting women’s rugby is to watch and get involved in and adds to the buzz around women’s sport in general.
There's been plenty of debate about your squad this year - tell us in your own words how it came about that you became involved?
I was approached by Harlequins who were looking at developing a partnership with Aylesford Bulls. They had a long term strategic plan on developing the women’s game at club level and that was hugely appealing to me. On a personal note, there was a combination of reasons behind the decision to take up a new coaching role. Part of that related to being able to achieve an improved balance in the day job and family commitments via a co-Head Coach role in a new set up and to personally develop further through working with experienced coaching counterparts within a professional club set up - and partly too because it was the right time to undertake a new coaching challenge and be able to develop players in a new squad.
I thoroughly enjoyed being at Richmond for the previous ten years and it's a time of which I am hugely proud of given the sustained success that was achieved. And lastly, it was about seeing the bigger picture in terms of the development of the women’s game at the top end and being part of the next phase.
What do you say to those who are critical about the way it came about?
Change is always a challenge and there will be some who support change and others who prefer the status quo. We are looking at the bigger picture and the long term development of the sport. The game evolves and the one thing that is a certain is that change will continue to happen; and with that, hopefully more progress to develop the game and allow it to be played on a big stage, getting the profile the women’s game deserves.
How have you enjoyed this season and this new challenge and tell us a bit more about the set up?
It's gone really well. We’ve had to build and gel a new squad together who have bought into the whole concept and future aspirations. The facilities at our base at Surrey Sports Park (SSP) working with the University of Surrey have been great, the support from Harlequins with regards to every aspect you would want to ensure as far as infrastructure goes and getting behind the venture has been first class, including the new gym the club has set up on site being a huge bonus for players. Having the S&C and physio dedicated specialists to go with that, alongside a coaching team of five experienced coaches means we can provide the level of player development we want to achieve, all of which is especially key heading into next season with the new league set ups.
We have been made to very much feel an integral part of a bigger club, and will going forward become bigger having successfully established some clear player pathways with the University of Surrey, Worthing College, Harlequin Ladies, and we await the arrival of some talented juniors coming up through the thriving girls programmes such as Harlequins Foundation’s Switch initiative, and the Harlequin Amateurs girls’ programme. The full amalgamation next season will strengthen the section even more. Exciting times lie ahead.
What's your coaching style and how have you enjoyed working with former England Coach Gary Street?
To be fair it's been really good. We all like a bit of banter – and it's as important for the coaching team to enjoy what we are doing as it is for players in the training environment. We have focussed on just sorting our own house out, getting on with our job as coaches and getting that right, and working through each week as it comes with our players. So despite having to manage the odd reference to Wikipedia (something about a World Cup), dodgy karaoke singing, and endless queries about whether he can feature in the next series of In The Line of Duty I am doing ok!.
You've got an experienced coaching set up there - how do you divide it up?
It's not that hard really – the backs are Gary bag, the po-po’s are mine! On a sensible note, we recruited three good assistant coaches who all add value to the set up within specific areas of responsibility and who all bring something to the party. That enables us to achieve genuine player development, proper feedback and review through working with smaller groups while ensuring we have coaching resilience. As head coaches that gives us the time to really look at attacking and defensive shape and spend time on planning and the detail of what we do, and how we are going to do it. To be honest, both Gary and I hadn’t experienced working in a joint coaching role arrangement, and I don’t doubt there were a few raised eyebrows on hearing about it and how it would work, and we had to see how it panned out ourselves. However when it comes down to how we want to play the game, coaching philosophies, and a shared commitment to developing and putting in place the best we can for our players we’re both on the same page, and that’s what counts.
What's the next steps for the squad, and tell us more about its links with Quins and Ayesford and how that works?
The next plans will just be to keep building the squad, continue to work with the players we currently have, ensuring we have strength and depth to field two good sides in line with RFU plans for next season, in terms of having a premiership and development side that will come fully under the one Harlequins banner, and in name.
Over the summer, and as with other teams, we will be working hard in the off season period once everyone has had a deserved break. Some of our players will naturally be going off to refocus on their respective international teams World Cup camps.
We will certainly be hosting open days and taster sessions to promote and grow the game and hopefully get more young girls and females playing rugby.
We have and will be continuing to ensure we have good links and pathways with Kent and Surrey county programmes, universities such as Surrey at SSP and Worthing College, and the pathways through the Harlequins Foundation’s Switch initiative and Harlequin Amateurs Girls’ programme so that there is a good link for aspiring young girls coming through from junior sections up into the senior women’s game. We have had a good year to start gelling everyone and the setup together as one, and that will continue.
You've got plenty of well known players in your squad - who has stood out this season and of those lesser known names who should we look out for in the future?
We have some really talented players, both home grown and from overseas. USA star Jess Wooden has had an outstanding season in our back three as a runner and in terms of her kicking game and England centre and skipper Rachael Burford provides great experience, leads by example and puts in the same level of effort into her club rugby as her international duties and has made an impact,
It's been a great season for Manu Furlan, and Miki Sillari who can leave defenders standing in their tracks with her footwork. England’s Vic Cornborough’s dynamism as a prop has caused oppositions problems, and Scotland’s Debs McCormack has also had a great season. But that all said, this is all being complemented with the strength and depth that comes from their team mates whose commitment to training has given us a strong core. It’s the squad that successfully played through and won the Cup fFnal, and did a great job. Katie Dootson who travels form the Isle of Sheppey, backrowers Hannah Fields, Fi Fletcher and Liz Philips with rising stars such as Linneke Gevers. Ashleigh Greenslade at fullback has come on loads. In terms of faces for the future – winger Jess Breech, out and out gas, and backrower Shaunagh Brown who thankfully thinks rugby is way more fun than athletics! There are no egos.
You've won plenty of league titles in the past, what are the key things your team needs to focus on based on your previous experience?
The players did the winning, I just made sure the planning and detail to get us there were right, that they were confident to go and win things. But finals are about performance. It’s about doing the basics well, as an individual first and foremost, as that enables the units to function and then the team to play. It's about mental focus for 80 plus, focussing on the controllables, and ultimately being hungrier than your opposition and seeing that through. I think the final will be a great game with both sides wanting and looking to play rugby.
How much would it mean to the squad to win it in season one?
Masses. For everyone involved. We have worked extremely hard as a whole squad this season – it hasn’t all been plain sailing but its made us stronger as a squad because we have talked things through – there isn’t a coach and player divide there is just a strong team as a whole. Ironically at the outset when we all sat down in a room back in June 2016 the last slide on the squad presentation was of Leicester’s then manager Claudio Ranieri pointing to the skipper with “Leicester to win the premier league 100 to 1" - with the words "we have got a chance then!" underneath. And that’s the principe we’ve stuck by, getting on with the rugby, focussing on ourselves and letting the rugby do the talking. So we will, just like Bristol, be giving all for that final push.
What are your views on the Super League and how that will help change the game in England?
The Super League is massive for the sport. It will provide a significant development for the women’s game. It will drive a high standard and increase participation. With the help of the RFU’s investment, it will provide the foundation for a world class domestic league.
Next season will be the Super League’s first and naturally there will be teething problems as it finds its feet and gets its legs going. In the long term, this really will be huge for the sport.