There aren’t many rugby clubs – male or female – who have experienced a 42-player exodus before the start of a season. There are even fewer who could recruit another 67 as a result.
Both happened to Lichfield Ladies RFC, in less than a year.
The club – one of the early trailblazers of the women’s game in England – were denied a place in this year’s inaugural Women’s Super Rugby competition, the Tyrrells Premier 15s. Decided in 2017, the non-admission was a dreadful blow to a proud women’s rugby club.
This Sunday the league will culminate in a showdown between Harlequins Ladies and Saracens, in a year which has massively boosted the profile of club-level women’s rugby.
While this positive transition should not go unrecognised, neither should the devastating sub-plot which Lichfield Ladies endured, hidden behind an array of Tyrrells crisp packets used to market a new flavour of women’s rugby.
While celebrating the advances to high-level women’s competition, it was a decision which hit the Midlands side hard: links with neighbouring universities broke down, and the future of the 25-year old club was hanging in the balance. The bitter pill was even harder to swallow because Loughborough Lightning, a newly formed university side on Lichfield’s doorstep, was admitted to the new league ahead of the Ladies.
Coincidentally, when the RFU’s decision went public, Lichfield were lying second in the Premiership – the then top-flight of English rugby – a league they had been part of for 15 seasons.
Across those 15 seasons, the club had produced many leading players. Five Lichfield players were on England duty in the 2017 Six Nations, including Rugby World Cup winner and the Team GB sevens rugby captain at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Emily Scarratt.
Lichfield’s 2017/18 recruitment drive
But a year on, the club has regenerated. Wiping all vestiges of former despair in a self-conceived project called ‘Operation Phoenix’.
A huge success, the club recruited a staggering 67 players to ensure their team colours could run out every week and were conscious of matching the more relaxed commitment needed for first and second tier championship rugby.
Remarkably, most of this was achieved by word of mouth. However the club did utilise their links with the armed forces; notably the RAF, to successfully coordinate talent transfers.
The club also brought in two clinical psychologists. Phil Quirk and Phil Kelly from Pro-Noctis, a human performance specialist company, who led analysis sessions on what ‘pity’ is.
“WHEN YOU’VE BEEN CRIPPLED BY THE RFU, THE ONLY THING YOU CAN DO IS RISE FROM THE ASHES.”
Becky Williams, Lichfield’s women’s and girl’s director of rugby, says she was adamant on maintaining Lichfield’s longstanding decorum of green and red teams – the club’s so-called ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides.
“It was a big loss to lose all those links, but we couldn’t afford to change our stance – two teams was always our priority,” Williams told Last Word on Rugby. “We never allowed the reality to hit, we never changed our expectations or standards as to where we were going to be this season.”
“Some might say it’s a little bit arrogant, but the proof’s in the pudding and it’s paid off.”
Lichfield Red and Green army no longer ‘at risk’
The club might not have experienced the savoury taste of Tyrrells rugby in its historic inaugural season but, Lichfield’s performances on the pitch after a turbulent few months have made their achievements ‘all the more sweeter’.
The club’s Red team ended the season second in Championship North – one tier below the Tyrrells – having won all but one of their league fixtures this season. Meanwhile their second Green team equivalent earned a respectable fourth-place finish in Championship Midlands 2, the country’s third-tier of women’s rugby.
Perhaps most significantly, this ‘second string’ of Lichfield players fulfilled all 12 of their fixtures throughout the 2017-18 season. Under RFU regulation 16.8.3, teams in championship two [where Lichfield’s ‘B’ team play] who do not fulfil two or more of their fixtures, face automatic relegation at the end of the season.
It is a hallmark of the club’s recovering determination – and bears significance, when considering half of the Tyrrells Premier 2XV league sides have failed to complete all of their fixtures in the competition’s first full season. That was in stark comparison to the determined stance of the Lichfield Ladies club, who pride themselves on ‘always turning up’.
Remarkably, Lichfield Ladies, who were listed by the RFU as a club ‘at risk’ at the start of the season, have officially been declared a ‘success’.
Building towards the future
Those connected with Lichfield will be watching the Tyrrells Premier 15s final this weekend. Not with a jealous eye mind you, but hugely satisfied for surviving what some still regard as one of the greatest unsung injustices in British sport.
Feelings of bitterness may still ebb and flow however, the club’s resurrection is rooted within its core identity. Williams feared this would be lost had it not been for her backroom staff in guiding the flurry of players transitioning in and out. “I have to credit all of the players and coaches for their effort in transforming the girls,” says Williams.
“Some had never played rugby before and our coaches have done a fantastic job in converting them into the amazing players we’ve had this season.”
The club have certainly honoured its 25-year history by what it has achieved over the last year. They face two more seasons of championship rugby though, due to the Tyrrells Premier 15s league remaining locked for another two seasons.
But will the phoenix that is Lichfield Ladies regenerate once more, should the opportunity to gain Tyrrells status arrive again? “Absolutely,” insists Williams.
“We fully applaud our former players who had aspirations to play at a higher level, but we welcomed in the next generation of players who had equal aspirations of being the best they could be.”
The spirit of the club has risen beyond the trials and tribulations of Rugby administration. With so many new women exposed to the game, the Lichfield Ladies have provided their own players with a pathway to finding their inner warrior.
“We’ll always strive to be a bigger and better club. Year one is done, and we survived.”