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Why England's contracts could be just the start

The beginning of fulltime professional contracts in the women's 15s game in England could spark a genuine revolution in women's rugby - but first the RFU need to prove their model works. 

We've written on this site before of the game-changing nature of England's decision to award 28 fulltime contracts and commit to professionalism for its top 15s players for long term.

It is significant not just because England are first - and they have so often been pioneers in the women's game - and not just because the game had just been waiting for someone to take the plunge, though that is true too, it is because if England can show the world that a sustainable pro model exists, then it really is the start of a revolution in the women's game. 

First to that model. With the very top end of the contract awards coming in at about £28,000, many of England's players will continue to work on the side to top up their salaries. England's captain Sarah Hunter for example will continue in her role as a forwards coach at her club Loughborough Lightning and those on the lower end of the contract scale, especially those based in London, will certainly have to find some other form of income.

Individual sponsorship will add extras to those higher profile players, while all players who are selected for games will receive match fees. Players will be based locally, coming together at Bisham Abbey regularly - around 80 times for example between now and the end of the summer tour.

England's XV players are not the only players being paid in the game - France and New Zealand pay their players on a part time basis, but many of those players hold down regular jobs with the money going towards travel costs, medical support and time off from employment to come together with the national squad. 

It seems unlikely that there are other nations capable or willing currently to take a leap on any of these models as it stands, raising the risk of a hardened two-tier test world, but if England can show the game how it can be done - we suddenly have the basis of a possibility of a pro women's 15s test game for more than just two or three teams. 

The RFU have offered contracts comparable to the value of central contracts the FA offer it's women's footballers, and it is easy to criticise the level of these compared especially with what male players are earning. 

But that ignores the reality that women's rugby, and indeed the majority of women's team sports, must find its own route and its own model, following its own vision and find a way to become sustainable over the longer term. 

The disparity between men's and women's pay in sport will always gall those of us who believe in parity, but you can still champion equality while also advocating that building blocks must be put in place first - in short, we've got to start somewhere.

There are other models that England can learn positive lessons from as they move forward on this journey. Women's cricket and football in particular have made cautious progress in their attempts to create a sustainable sport capable of bringing in its own revenue from broadcast and sponsorship deals. And there are pitfalls to avoid too - not just in the world of women's sports, where many attempts at professionalism, for example in US soccer leagues over the years, have ended in disaster due to financial over-reaching and over-reliance on individual backers, but in men's rugby too. 

It is easy to forget that only one of England's Premiership team turns a profit and that is a reminder of how tough the sports market is and the challenge facing the women's game as it aims to go it alone. 

But this is the start, and anyone passionate about the future of women's rugby, whatever their background, will surely be willing England on to show us how to make a success of this.