Nicky Ponsford has been in the leading figure in women’s rugby, as the Head of Performance at the RFU, since October 2002.

James from @RugbySaracens interviewed her earlier this month about the new Tyrell’s Premier 15s season and the challenges of developing women’s rugby in England.

Premier 15s




In her seventeen years in charge, Ponsford has overseen huge changes to how rugby for women is developed and marketed. The Tyrrell’s Premier 15s, now entering its third year, is the pinnacle of the English women’s club pyramid: elite rugby at a time when professional contracts and payments for playing are slowly spreading, live television coverage is increasing, and media and public attention has been given to female participation as never before. I asked how the league now compares to where she thought it would be when launching the TP15s in 2017?

“I think if you had told us we would have made as much progress as we have in the last two years, we would have one hundred per cent taken it. I think we always had aspirations that we would really see the game move forward, that we would see the product on the pitch move forward, support for players would develop, but I think it’s definitely progressed further in the first two years than we expected it to.”

Saracens recently announced that it has doubled its investment in Saracens Women with a view to improving the club’s infrastructure; introducing financial support for players; and delivering bespoke player development programmes with the aim of helping to keep the Tyrrells Premier 15s champions at the forefront of the game. Ponsford thought it pointed to the future:

“I think teams have definitely taken the next step in terms of the support they have put in place for players and the recruitment they have done for players. In the first year, I think clubs were very much relying on the players that they had in their squads. Last year was probably a piece where they went out and may be targeted a couple of players or were may be keen to recruit in a couple of areas, but I think across the board now all the squads have very much looked at who they want in their registered player pool. I think it will make for a really exciting league because we are seeing more players coming into the league, both from a younger age group but also from leagues across the world, which means every team will be better and every team will be more competitive. I think it’s hugely exciting.”




 

A more competitive league than ever?

But is the whole league strong enough? Nicky was quoted at the Premier 15s’ fixtures’ launch talking about it being a more competitive league than ever, but when you look at the league tables for the first two years, some of the clubs have been static in terms of their positions. Will that continue this season, or perhaps some of the teams, like two-times tenth place Worcester where there has been some very heavy investment, could push through quite hard? Ponsford certainly thinks so.

“I think we will see probably more movement than we’ve seen in the first two years. I think the most important thing for me though isn’t so much the position in the table, but it’s about do you go into games not knowing the who’s going to win the game, or it’s going to be quite a close score and people are going to put pressure on some of the top teams than they have ever put on those teams before. That’s when we talk about the league being competitive, for me the most important thing is that you go into games and don’t know who is going to win. We only need the bottom teams to pull off a couple shock results and it really puts everything wide open, even if they don’t climb to the top of the league, the fact they are actually putting in performances that people go, ‘I’m not sure who is going to win future games. I know who I expect to win, but they have been playing really well and actually that team is outperforming where we expect them to be.’”

It’s really important it is competitive and it’s really important that every team is competitive within the league

Ponsford spoke about the future of the league saying, “We want this league to be here in ten, twenty years’ time. The league will only be here if it is competitive and if people don’t know who’s going to win it. If we know who’s going to win it every year for the next ten years, then it doesn’t become a great spectacle. It’s really important it is competitive and it’s really important that every team is competitive within the league.”




 

Upwards trajectory for Premier 15s

The process of selection of teams for the second three-year period of the Premier 15s was announced recently. Nicky was clear she hoped for even more growth in the second three-years period.

“The trajectory has been really good over the first two years and what we expect in year three. The support we are getting for players is completely different from anything they have had before. In a lot of clubs it is providing, not necessarily a daily training environment, but a training environment that players are benefiting from three, four or five times a week. It is allowing those players to be ultimately the best version of themselves. And that’s where we want to get to. Are we in a position across the league where players can go to any one of the ten clubs and know that they have the opportunity to be the best version of themselves, to reach their potential? If we can say that at the end of those three years, then I think we have achieved massively in that league.”

“The second thing in terms of achieving in the league in the second three years is probably crowds and profile. We want people to see what a great product it is. We want people to see that the girls are excellent rugby players: skill levels really high, physicality really high and it’s a good game of rugby – and open people’s eyes to what Tyrrells is actually delivering. I think crowd sizes would be the second thing I would look at it in terms of ‘have you been successful over that three-year period’. I think if we could say both of those things then I think we would be in a great place.”




 

Increasing attendance at Premier 15s matches

The average crowd attendance across the Tyrrells was just 345 last season, despite the 4,837 attendance record the Harlequins set last season at their ‘Game changer’ event. Compare that to the new women’s Super League football in England where 24,000 fans went to Stamford Bridge for Chelsea Women’s opening Super League game earlier this month. What does Ponsford think of that football attendance?

“It definitely points to the direction to where we want to be aspiring to. You have to think if you are getting 24,000 to watch a women’s football game, we want to be bringing more fans into our games, both from a Red Roses level and from a Tyrrell’s level. The 10,000 at Exeter for last season’s Red Roses has set a new benchmark of where we want to be. It’s then about how saying ‘how do we build on that, both from a Red Roses and a Tyrrells perspective, and really try to drive attendances to all of those games.”

How though does the Premier 15s go from attendances, some in the low hundreds for a game, to regular larger crowds? I asked Nicky what are some of the barriers on getting some of those attendances now given that the product on the pitch is so good?

“We need the games to be seen by more people so the more games we can stream, the more are shown on television, the more people actually see them, the more we can actually encourage more people to come and watch the games.”

She said, “I think getting people through the door is the most difficult thing. I think it’s not a habit at the moment going to watch a women’s game. It’s not something people do on a regular basis. I think there are a couple of things. We need the games to be seen by more people so the more games we can stream, the more are shown on television, the more people actually see them, the more we can actually encourage more people to come and watch the games. We are trying to play them to be more flexibly about when the games are played. There are more double headers so people will actually stay on to watch the games or watch games before the men’s games. We are creating audiences: it’s about creating those audiences before we actually can get those audiences to come to potentially some standalone fixtures.”




What else can be done? One suggestion is greater coordination between the RFU organised Premier 15s and the Premiership Rugby Limited’s men’s league. Relations between the RFU and PRL are said to be cool and competitive. Can the two work together to build Premier 15s attendances? Ponsford was cautious in her response, pointing to media companies’ involvement and coordination between men’s and women’s sides of clubs, like at Saracens and Harlequins, also being key:

“We need to continue to work and have those conversations. To a certain extent it isn’t even PRL to make some of those decisions. Some of those decisions are made by television and they will make some of those things. The more we can do to drive interest, and we’ve talked about that internally, what are the other activities we can have around that date to make sure we get people through the door. We will continue to do that. I think the more individual clubs work with their individual men’s clubs the better relationship we have, and it all helps to allow us to drive attendances and the profile. I think we are definitely seeing a real change in how a lot of the women’s teams sit within their men’s clubs, which is really exciting, in allowing us to build that profile.

Is enough being done to market the game? Ponsford agreed that Harlequins and Harlequins Women are exceptional in their marketing, including promoting men’s and women’s players around the Stoop. What else did she think could be done?



“I think Harlequins have led the way in showing people what can be done. It’s a great example of what integration looks like and how you can potentially drive those audiences, how they work with their season ticket holders to help bring those to women’s games.”

Ponsford said, “There is an element that sits with the RFU in terms of marketing in what our plans are. We are looking to build on what we did last year to increase that particularly around some Red Roses games and the Final and drive that forward. There is a lot of support and encouragement going on with the clubs including how they can work with their men’s clubs more effectively. I think Harlequins have led the way in showing people what can be done. I think it’s a great example of what integration looks like and how you can potentially drive those audiences, how they work with their season ticket holders to help bring those to women’s games. I think they have set a great example and I think a lot of other clubs are going, ‘we might be able to learn from that, build from that and ask what can we do? How can we make this right for us?”

She continued, “Clubs have to do what is right for them. We can’t dictate what that piece looks like. There is a growing awareness that they can work with their women’s side to really help develop the whole club, not just the women’s sides.”

The England Women’s side, known as the Red Roses, fall within Ponsford’s wide remit. I asked whether her ambitions were for the national side this season, having just announced three autumn international fixtures: one in France and two at home (Exeter and Bedford).

“We’ll have three fixtures over the autumn and then the Six Nations. We are going to build on the success last year. We are trying to make sure we at least match what we did previously. There are a few more seats to be filled at Exeter and if we can actually make sure every ground we go to is completely full then that’s where we want to get to. From an off the pitch piece, it’s about crowd numbers and filling stadiums. On the pitch it’s about building on the performance that we had out in San Diego in the summer Super Series. I think it was great in terms of us having competitive fixtures. We learnt lots of lessons. We know where we’ve got to continue to build over the next two years to put us in a shout to win the World Cup. That’s where the next two years is, our preparation period before we go to New Zealand.”




In terms of maximising crowds, are the RFU looking to work with the men’s game about scheduling, or are you looking for a separate audience?

“A bit of both. We just want the crowd there. The Exeter Red Roses game means they can watch the Exeter men’s fixture just afterwards. We expect it to be a bit of both: women and girls coming to watch because it’s a women’s game, or supporters of the women’s game coming to watch because it’s an England women’s game, but there will always be supporters who come from the men’s game, perhaps if they might not be travelling. They get an opportunity to come an see a really good game of rugby and then get to watch their team on the big screen as well.”

World Rugby recently announced that it would drop the “women’s” identifier from the 2021 World Cup onwards. Ponsford was relaxed about it.

“It’s really not a big bug bear either way. I think the more important thing is that it is given the kudos and credibility it deserves and the resources it needs to make it a fantastic tournament. Whether that’s the ‘World Cup’ or ‘Women’s World Cup’ I really don’t mind. I think it’s more about what resources are put behind it to reflect the quality of the rugby that will be played.”

England will be one of the favourites for the 2021 World Cup. What is Nicky doing to build towards 2021 and to go as the best team they can be there?

“It’s about building more consistency. We saw out in San Diego that we have some passages of really good play and we do things really well, but not necessarily consistently which put us under a bit of pressure. Probably to just work through some different tactical challenges. It blew a gale in San Diego for most of it so how do we play tactically in those positions. Just to be able to alter the game plan to reflect the condition, I think that’s the big things we need to do. We have got a lot of really young players in the squad. I think the more they can play, and some of them are very young and new to the international game so two years developing we can be really excited about their potential.”




To finish, how would Nicky Ponsford, as Head of Performance for the women’s game, sum up the state of the women’s game?

“We are moving in the right direction in terms of performances, profile, increasing numbers coming into the game but we have got lots more to do”

We are happy with the progress. I’m not happy we haven’t got to where we want to be. I would say it’s very much a journey. We are moving in the right direction in terms of performances, profile, increasing numbers coming into the game but we have got lots more to do. We have made some really good steps over the last twelve months: the Red Roses being contracted to the RFU is a brilliant step forward, but we have lots more steps to take. So, it’s good so far, but I think we will do better and people are focused on doing that. It’s an exciting time to be involved in the women’s game.

James from @RugbySaracens, September 2019