As her team gathered, slowly, on a crisp autumnal morning on 22 Acres for pre-season training, Ruth Whitehead reflected on her inheritance as Women’s Rugby president. “Two years ago we gained promotion to Northern 1A, which is a much tougher league” Ruth admits, “We were expecting to be relegated.”
BUCS Wednesdays were best forgotten last year, with only one victory in ten games in Northern 1A. Yet, they survived – against the odds.They came fifth, second bottom of their league, and in doing so managed to stave off the threat of relegation. The aim is to build on this and finish in a much higher positon this time round.
This intent is articulated by first-team captain Serena Brymer: “We want to be a competitive team, rather than a struggler” she asserted.
“We know the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. It’s going to be a case of working harder and keeping ourselves up there.”
Central to these efforts will be their coach Ian Thomson, Lancaster graduate and backs coach at York Rugby Club, who joined the fold in January: “Our previous coach had been with us for two and a half years, but at the time it was definitely the right decision when he decided to leave.”
“We brought Ian in in January and the effect was immediate” Ruth said, “We played some teams at the start of the season, and then again at the end, and they couldn’t believe that it was the same team.”
Serena testified to Thomson’s “strong impact” and stated that the team are “really looking forward to a full season with him on board”.
Despite some upheaval, the club can look back on genuine progress. They pulled off a sensational Roses whitewash, winning all three of their games, across sevens and fifteen-a-side formats, earning seven points for the victorious home cause.
Award nominations for Roses Team of the Year and, particularly, Contribution to Diversity at the York Sport Awards were richly deserved. The launch of the Equal Opportunities scheme will play directly to the club’s strengths, and they are actively planning to continue their work with LGBTQ students.
Also off the field, they raise money for Independent Domestic Abuse Services (IDAS), a York-based charity for individuals suffering from domestic abuse and sexual violence.
In the minds of anyone that witnesses the Roses routs, the losses of Juliette Carter and captain Mollie Staples will be keenly felt. As much as these were “key personalities”, in the words of Brymer, there are individuals ready to step up. The skipper was keen to highlight flanker Megan Hull-Stewart, especially, as an increasingly important figure.
Versatile back Edith Sandstrom, who joined as a fresher last season, and winger Katie Layley should also be key players going into the new campaign, which gets underway at the University of Leeds on 21 October.
Meanwhile Whitehead, who broke her back last year, has returned bravely to take a non-playing role: She will be heavily involved in coaching and is “looking forward to watching everyone progress and grow individually”.
Brymer agreed, and stressed the importance of an “outside pair of eyes” to offer feedback and judge progress objectively as the season unravels.
Next on the agenda is broadening their development squad, which they are looking to embellish with a strong intake of new recruits.
The girls have also spent plenty of time fundraising for a second team, which should provide newcomers with even more motivation to get involved.
Incoming freshers are certain to receive a warm welcome: “I would happily say that we are all friends; like one big family, from which it was really sad to lose some members last year,” Brymer says.
The club are out to adopt a number of new faces once again. After 150 freshers signed up for emails, over 60 attended their taster session.
Although they are aiming to generate a similar if not greater level of initial interest, the challenge is to keep girls attending training sessions and bring them into the fabric of the ‘family.’
Whitehead enthuses, “The groundwork that Mollie Staples and Isobel Welby laid is what we really want to build on and not lose just because they’ve gone.” Having listened to the enthusiasms and intent of Whitehead and Brymer, there seems little danger of that.