Jo Yapp has experience of grasping tightly to opportunities that unexpectedly come her way.

As an 18-year-old scrum-half Yapp caught the eye of selectors playing for England Students, and was subsequently catapulted into her country’s Rugby World Cup 1998 squad.

In Amsterdam, she appeared in four matches, including the semi-final defeat to New Zealand, and enlisted the help of several teachers in the England camp to aid her A-Level revision.

More than two decades later, and having captained England at RWC 2006 and forged a successful career in coaching, Yapp was again presented with an unanticipated opening.

She had returned to Worcester Warriors Women, the latest iteration of the club she represented throughout her playing career, last August as skills coach. But by October, following a run of four defeats to start the Tyrells Premier 15s season, she had become director of rugby.

Yapp knew a number of the squad from her time as England Women U20 head coach and had selected five Warriors players for the Tri-Nations Cup just three months earlier.

“It was obviously challenging because I came into post in mid-October time, so the season was well under way and the first book of games had happened,” she told World Rugby.

“Coming in halfway through is difficult and at that point the application was in for the [Premier 15s] re-tendering process. So, that was quite difficult.

‘You want them to stay there’

“But then we had the November break, which came at a really good time for us because it gave us a few weeks to not worry about games, just to sort of train with the girls and get our own coaching across really, and principles of what we wanted. 

“Because at the same time as I started, Mike Hill, our forwards coach, started as well. So it was a great opportunity for us to really get to know the players a lot better. And then after that we were in a better place going into that second block of games.”

Worcester won their first match of the season on 1 December, 15-12 against Bristol Bears, and went on to beat Waterloo and Richmond to move up the table before the COVID-19 pandemic brought an end to the season.

In April, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) published the results of its audit of the Premier 15s with Worcester’s place in England’s top division confirmed until 2023.

“Obviously pre-season comes with its own challenges right now, but just knowing that we can plan long-term is fantastic for us as staff,” Yapp said. 

“Because there’s six of us who are full-time with the women, so that’s our jobs as well, which is important. 

“I was fortunate to be one of the players back in the day that got promoted into the Premiership at the time, for Worcester. And obviously personally and historically, you want them to stay there and that was really important for us.”

Yapp’s workload had increased in November due to her involvement with the Barbarians, whose women’s team she coached to a 29-15 defeat of Wales at the Principality Stadium. 

The 40-year-old, who agreed to coach the invitational side prior to taking on the director of rugby role in Worcester, worked alongside former Wales captain Rachel Taylor and Barbarians Women’s Coordinator Fiona Stockley to put together a team of international talent.

“It was fantastic, because I’d never met Rachel before we got involved with the Barbarians,” Yapp explained. 

“I’d seen her play, but I didn’t know her. So, to go into that experience and to coach with somebody else from another nation like that is amazing. 

Taking a holistic approach

“I learnt a lot from watching Rachel coach that week and we shared ideas and it was just great. People like Fiona Stockley, who is amazing, to be able to pull all of that together when she does it for the love of it. 

“And to be around those people is great, you just learn so much. You’ve got one week to put an international team together to play another international team. What are the priorities? What are the things you need to focus on? 

“That’s very much around pulling the girls together as a group as opposed to worrying about some of the on-field stuff in some respects. 

“It’s about bonding them as a group, so it’s just very different challenges and as a staff group as well, bonding and working together on that. So, it’s very special.”

In many respects, working with the Barbarians was the perfect fit for Yapp. Throughout her coaching career, from the University of Exeter to England Women U20s and Worcester, Yapp has been concerned with her players’ off the pitch wellbeing as much as their achievement on it.

“Very much my philosophy would be around supporting the person as well as the player,” she said. “I think that very much comes from me starting with young and developing players. 

“But I think if you can support the person and create good people then that will help you create better rugby players, and that comes from showing that you care about players and you care about what they’re doing and how their education’s going and how their work-life balance is going, and all of that kind of stuff. 

“Because if you can get that bit right then the playing bit is easier to look after.”

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