Whitney Hansen’s (main picture) recent promotion to assistant Black Ferns coach sends out a hugely positive message to the latest group of Rugby World Cup 2021 coaching interns of the possibilities available to them moving forward.

Now their respective countries have confirmed their qualification for the tournament in New Zealand, Lailanie Burnes (Fiji), Michela Tondinelli (Italy), Aya Nakajima (Japan) and Claire Cruikshank (Scotland) will join the initiative first launched by World Rugby back in September 2020.

All four have previously experienced the Rugby World Cup as players – as far back as the inaugural tournament in 1991 in Tondinelli’s case – but can now look forward to seeing how events unfold through a different pair of eyes as interns in their respective national coaching set-ups.

Burnes: an inspiration on and off the field

Trailblazer Burnes founded the first-ever women’s rugby club in Fiji, and many of its players can be found in the Fijiana squad. As the team’s former captain, Burnes played an active part in securing Fijiana qualification for their first-ever Rugby World Cup but now she has chosen to influence the team from the sidelines after taking the decision to hang up her boots.

Tondinelli is looking forward to a fourth Rugby World, the previous three having come in 1991, 1998 and 2002 as a player. “I hope to learn as much as possible from this programme,” Tondinelli said. “Comparing myself with the other coaches and different rugby cultures will be fantastic.”

Rio Olympian Nakajima appeared at the 15s Rugby World Cup in Ireland the following year as a second-rower and continues to play at club level while furthering her coaching career. A self-confessed lineout “nerd”, Nakajima will be responsible for the area of the game that leads to more tries than any other while in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, a knee injury sustained at Rugby World Cup 2006 restricted Cruikshank’s international career to five Scotland caps. During rehab, Cruikshank tried her hand at coaching for the first time, helping the junior teams at her club, Murrayfield Wanderers, and hasn’t looked back since, gaining international experience with the Sweden women’s national team.

In addition to Hansen, Inge Visser (Australia), Maria Gallo (Canada), Amy Turner (England), Laurian Johannes-Haupt (South Africa), Kate Daley (USA), Sophie Spence (Wales) and Celine Allaimat and Gaëlle Mignot (both France) have developed their leadership skills through the programme.

Climbing the coaching ladder

For all of the interns, Rugby World Cup 2021 is an invaluable opportunity to further their coaching education, especially Hansen now that her role is very much ‘hands-on’.

The Christchurch native is part of a new-look Black Ferns coaching team headed up by former All Blacks coach, Wayne Smith. Manawatu’s Wesley Clarke is a fellow assistant coach with a wealth of experience, while world-renowned scrum guru, Mike Chron, and Rugby World Cup-winning coach, Graham Henry, will impart their knowledge in supporting roles.

Like Hansen, Canadian Gallo is currently assistant coach of the country’s women’s national team, while Australia’s Visser is going places after being accepted onto the inaugural Women’s Sport Leadership Academy for High Performance Coaches.

England’s Turner is another visibly reaping the benefits of the Coaching Internship Programme, which was designed to support the development of female coaches in line with the target to have women fill at least 40 per cent of all coaching roles at Rugby World Cup 2025, hosted by England.

Since becoming one of the first participants in the CIP, the former police officer has worked with World Rugby Coach of the Year 2021 Simon Middleton and his Red Roses coaching staff during a period of almost unprecedented success for the team.

Due to the postponement of Rugby World Cup 2021 by 12 months, Turner has juggled the internship with her responsibilities as England women’s U20 coach, working with potential stars of the future – ones she may coach one day as head coach of the Red Roses if her career continues to take an upward trajectory.

The same applies to Johannes-Haupt who became the first female to take charge of a South African national team when she was appointed as the Women’s U20 coach last May.

Rugby World Cup 2021 promises to be a tournament that creates new memories on a number of levels, not least for the coaching interns involved.