When 13 year old Charlotte Graham-Woollard, and her friend Ffion, wanted to start playing Rugby, they found there was nowhere for girls of their age to play within the region. Not wanting to let this dash their rugby dreams they decided to take matters into their own hands and start their own team. “We went to our teacher first but we couldn’t get enough interest in school to start a team. So I went to my dad, who was already a coach at Gowerton. I asked him if he would coach a girls team. Ffion did the same with her dad, Andy Daniel, who was also a coach, and we managed to get Gowerton Girls RFC set up” remembers Charlotte. “I had tried loads of sports but never felt driven to keep going. My dad has been in rugby from before I was born and I went to my first game when I was around 8 months old. I grew up watching my brother play and just really wanted to give it a go”.
Gowerton Girls RFC has been going ever since and are now in their 6th season. They have around 60 girls currently registered between the U15s and U18.
West Swansea Hawks
Four years ago they set up West Swansea Hawks, a WRU hub for U7s to U18s. The hub is part of the WRU girls summer rugby initiative, to encourage more girls into the sport, giving them the chance to try rugby in different formats. This has been a massive success, with many of the girls choosing to continue to train all year round and also go on to train and play competitively through the winter months with Gowerton Girls RFC. West Swansea Hawks now have a ladies team and so between them they provide the full pathway from U7s to senior ladies rugby.
Now 19, Charlotte plays for West Swansea Hawks Ladies, but has remained heavily involved in the junior rugby. “I have tried to stay as involved as I can with Gowerton Girls, I played up until I was 18, and I am still involved with the junior Hawks. I started coaching for West Swansea Hawks when it was set up. When I played for U18s I coached the U15s and now I play for seniors I coach U18s. The most important thing about coaching is the relationships you make. I have a lot of trust with a lot of girls because I am close in age and I am a girl, so they come to me if they have any problems. Not just rugby issues, but if there is anything preventing them from enjoying it. I always had male coaches and I think I would have related to female coaches better and benefitted from having a female role model. That’s why I like being around for the girls”.
Bustling training sessions
After hearing about the amazing things they have been doing for girls rugby in the Swansea region, we decided to head down to one of the busy Gowerton Girls training sessions to see for ourselves what they do and meet some of the people involved. It was a wet and windy evening at the end of September, but there were still around 40 girls training. The lead coaches, Wayne (U18s) and Keith (U15s) had prepared session plans for the girls to work through, with the support of 5 additional coaches. There is obviously a massive variation in ability and experience amongst the girls. But one thing that struck me whilst watching them practice, was how inclusive and supportive they were.
Dave Graham-Woollard, lead for Gowerton Girls RFC and West Swansea Hawks, is passionate about creating an environment where girls can come and be themselves, play rugby, socialise and have fun. He told 7 Day Sport, “We have girls join with no rugby experience at all. We are all about ‘have a go, because you never know until you have a go’. We have girls here who we have made a massive difference to, both socially and psychologically, because they have found a family. Their confidence has come on, they have found really good friends and the banter is excellent”.
“There is no cap on numbers, we want to give the opportunity for girls to dip in and out if they want to, so our numbers need to be higher to have enough players to maintain a squad. The aim is quite simply to have a provision for the girls to play rugby, that’s it. My measure of success is not if we get 4 or 5 girls into the Welsh team, it’s if these girls are still playing in 10 years time and we still have the younger teams coming through with full continuity into women’s senior rugby”, Dave explained.
As the girls rugby grows the WRU plan is to fully merge Gowerton Girls and West Swansea Hawks so they are the same thing. A problem they are looking forward to having in the future is, when they have too many girls and need to start other teams. The long term plan is to expand into more locations to offer this facility to girls in lots of different areas all over Swansea.
I was lucky enough to chat with some of the players whilst they were training, and find out from them how important it is to have this girls rugby provision. This is what they had to say…
Ella Williams, U15s
“The mixed team I played for when I was younger folded a year before I came here. It meant I had to have a year off rugby and I really missed it. When Gowerton Girls started I was only 8 so I wasn’t old enough to actually play, but I turned up to every training. It’s really good here, banter is the main thing. We are a really good team, very supportive of each other and all care for each other. We all get along well. I would like to see more women’s rugby, but its not on TV much. Siwan Lillicrap is my Rugby idol”.
“I play with West Swansea Hawks, Gowerton Girls and I have played mixed rugby for the past year. Mixed is more physical and I enjoy it because it’s different. This will be my last season but I’m glad I have the girls to continue with. My dad inspired me to play rugby. He asked if I wanted to play for West Swansea Hawks and he now coaches too. To anyone thinking of giving it a go I would say, ‘Try your best. If you don’t want to do contact you can sit out and watch. But you will be fine after you’ve done your first tackle
Amy Rogers and Jess Rogers, U18s
A- “We have been playing for about 8 years. We come from a rugby family and it’s something we have always enjoyed together, as family. I love being on the pitch with my sister. Jess played with the boys better than I did, when I came to girls rugby I was in my element. U18s is a lot more competitive. There are so many teams to watch out for, the standard is so high. In November we are going to watch Wales Women v Barbarians, we love watching womens’ rugby because we learn so much, you see every little detail. Siwan Lillycrap, Carys Phillips and Keira Bevan are my role models. I think if I was able to get to that level it would be amazing, you know you have made it then”.
J – “I finished mixed rugby 3 years ago because I had to stop because of my age. It was fine because I had the girls team to join. There is a massive difference in the game in general. In the girls game I think we feel we have more to prove, so it’s a lot more hard hitting and intense. It a good game to play. Last year I was in U15s so I am enjoying playing on the same team as my sister again this year”.
Ffion Marshall U18s
“I have been playing rugby since I was 9, I had finished doing ballet and then my local club came into school and I went home and told my dad I wanted to join. He was surprised and hoped it would be no contact but I went straight into tackling with the boys. From the age of 9 to 13 I played mixed rugby and then went into Gowerton Girls U15s. I was quite excited to start girls rugby because it was different. In mixed rugby you’re always put in the same position because the boys like to be the forwards and stuff. Playing in girls only team you can mix it up a bit and try new things. I was already training with Gowerton Girls for a long time before I was able to play for them. When I started I didn’t know anyone and I was quite a bit younger. Straight away they were all so welcoming and I fitted straight in, it was like a big family. It’s funny because I didn’t think I would like rugby, but I ended up loving it”.
Kiera Evans, U18s
“I started with Hawks 3 years ago then came to Gowerton Girls and also played for Ospreys U18s last season. I have decided I want this as a career, I don’t want to do anything that doesn’t revolve around rugby and sport. Already I coach on a Monday with West Swansea Hawks and I want to get my coaching badge soon. Playing for Wales is my dream. I was always an active girl and did loads of other sports. Then I tried rugby and just knew this was my sport. I think it’s the physical side. Girls rugby is very competitive. A friendly game to us is the same as the world cup. We have a lot to prove we have something to show when we get onto that pitch”.
There is an obvious benefit to girls only Rugby, for all of the girls involved. Whether they excelled in mixed teams or have only ever had the confidence to play in a girls only setting, it was clear to see that all of the girls are getting a lot out of the female rugby environment. A lot of girls of this age wouldn’t play if they had to play mixed rugby. It is an important time of development for young girls, it’s a self conscious age. There is a lot of pressure on girls with body image and wanting to fit in, which are the biggest barriers to girls playing any type of sport. But what we saw at Gowerton RFC was a group of girls of all shapes and sizes, playing a sport they love, wearing what they feel comfortable training in, all supporting each other and having fun.
The importance of role models
It’s not just the girls only teams that create this confidence, it is important to have female role models too. This is something Gowerton Girls RFC and West Swansea Hawks are excelling at. The older players are also encouraged to get involved in coaching the younger ones, alongside the existing male and female coaches . They act as fabulous role models to the youngsters starting out. Especially as some of them have already been selected to play for Ospreys and Wales. They have lots of volunteers and support at the club. These have mostly tended to be dads, but the West Swansea Hawks have now got some mum’s coaching too. They have strong links with the Welsh Women’s rugby team. Swansea University Rugby Lead, Bristol Bears and Wales star Siwan Lillicrap is their unofficial patron and ambassador, as well as providing links to the University. Players from West Swansea Hawks Ladies and Swansea RFC Women often come along to training sessions. The coaches believe it is far better to be coached and supported by female players who are actually doing what the girls are aspiring to.
What Gowerton Girls RFC and West Swansea Hawks have created really represents the future of girls rugby. The short time I spent with them was truly inspirational. The passion and enthusiasm these girls and their coaches have for the sport is amazing to see. They are creating exactly the kind of role models we should want for all young girls. “This whole set up only works because of the massive support from the club and the committee and especially the volunteers. Not only the direct coaching, team managing, safeguarding, media posting and first aid, but the time they give up and the fundraising they do to make all of this possible” adds Dave Graham-Woollard.
If you are looking for something fun and active for girls to take part in, then look no further. Whether you’re an experienced player, have always wanted to try rugby or you just want to do something new, Gowerton Girls RFC welcomes everyone.
We at 7 Day Sport wish them all the best for their future development. We can’t wait to see how they continue to progress.
To learn more about how you can get involved follow them on Facebook and Twitter using the links below.
Gowerton Girls RFC
West Swansea Hawks
Also read all about what Afan Lido FC are doing for girls football in South Wales here.