The continued growth of women’s rugby in England would not have been possible without the tireless work of a number of key early adopters.
World Rugby Hall of Fame inductees Jim Greenwood and Carol Isherwood have rightly been recognised for their contribution to the cause, but there is one name that appears almost without fail at every twist and turn for the women’s game in the country.
Nicky Ponsford took part in England’s first ever test match, against Wales in Pontypool in 1987, and was wearing the number two jersey again seven years later when her country secured their first Women’s Rugby World Cup title.
Following a 50-cap playing career, Ponsford joined the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) in 2002 as Head of Women’s Performance – having been a prominent player – before it became part of the Rugby Football Union in 2012, a role she still holds today. In that time England finished as runners-up on home soil in 2010 and then won a second Women’s Rugby World Cup in France four years later.
In 2016, Ponsford travelled to Rio as team leader for Great Britain’s Olympic women’s sevens side, while in the last two years she has acted as spokeswoman as the RFU launched the Tyrrells Premier 15s and last month announced full-time contracts for its women’s 15-a-side England internationals.
For the facetious it might seem that Ponsford is the Forrest Gump of English women’s rugby, turning up at each momentous step. That would, of course, do a huge disservice to the hard work that she has put in to facilitate such progress.
However, much like the fictional film character, the former interim England women’s head coach is extremely modest when weighing up her role in the past 31 years, insisting she has been fortunate to help grow the game she so dearly loves.
“It was probably harder work as a player as much as anything else,” Ponsford jokes, referring to a time when playing rugby bore a financial cost. “I would say I’ve been exceptionally lucky, I couldn’t describe it as hard work.
“You always have good days and bad days at work but actually I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to be involved in a game that I’m really passionate about and I just want to see develop. So, I’m delighted to see how the game’s moved forward.
“As a player I was incredibly proud to be involved in ’94 when we obviously won the World Cup, that was a great day and lots of celebrations.
“To have been involved effectively from that point onwards, for a bit longer as a player then as a coach, and then coming through as an administrator, I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to be involved.
“I think I’m pleased with where we’ve got to and I think we’ve got a huge amount of work still to do. But we’re getting there and it’s great to be involved.”
Change in attitude
Ponsford acknowledges that the women’s game has taken great strides over the past decade as a successful home World Cup has been levered into a flourishing fledgling league and professional national team contracts.
But she believes that rugby has been enabled by a change in attitude in general towards women’s sport in that time.
“Women’s rugby has taken all these steps forward but actually underneath all of that, I think particularly from 2012 onwards, women’s sport has sat in the national psyche,” she said.
“There’s been a lot of profile around women’s football, women’s cricket, netball, all of those things have helped us because actually it raises the profile of sport generally.”
Ponsford believes the game has changed “beyond all recognition” in the 24 years since she was packing down in the 1994 World Cup final, and she says that giving the senior England players professional contracts in particular puts the game on an equal standing with other women’s sports in the country.
“Now we’re definitely on the same sort of journey as other women’s team sports,” she added. “That’s really important.”
However work remains to be done, not least in terms of producing a pathway for the female coaches and sports administrators of the future.
Ponsford has been appointed chair of the European women’s rugby commission and is set to run the Women’s Leadership Forum in Madrid at the start of next month.
Part of World Rugby’s push to develop female leaders, the forum will include an in-depth discussion on why there is a paucity of women coaches at the elite level of the game.
“Coaching at the top level is an issue not just within rugby but across most sports,” Ponsford admitted. “I think [only] 11 per cent of the coaches in Rio were female, so it’s not just rugby. It’s an area that there’s a lot of sports and a lot of countries looking to address.
“We’re doing quite a lot within England Rugby to drive that forward, [there are] a number of coaches on level three programmes, a number of female coaches on level four programmes.
“[We’re] working with those coaches to make sure they have the right deployment opportunities so that they get the right practice coming out of those programmes to enable them to get into performance roles.”
It is an area where the Premier 15s can help the RFU, and Ponsford hopes the league can become a “breeding ground” for female coaches.
However, sitting on the European women’s rugby commission, the former England hooker’s work is not restricted to continuing the growth of the sport in her own country alone.
“We definitely want to see the game develop across Europe, and from a selfish point of view, the more competitive teams are in Europe the better it is for us [England],” she said.
“We want to see more teams being more competitive. So, it’s great to see the opportunity for those teams to grow and to develop.”
Ponsford added: “We don’t want to sort of have one element that’s just so far above everyone else that they can’t compete. But actually that’s not about stopping the top element, it’s about bringing everybody else together.
“So, it’s about us continually working to drive development through the whole of Europe.”
RWC 2019 Tickets
RWC 2019 Official Ticketing site NOW LIVE
Fans can now register interest to apply for Rugby World Cup 2019 tickets