Newbury Ladies celebrate their Berkshire cup triumph
“NOW it’s about keeping our feet on the floor and curbing those expectations.”
A winning mentality, flying overseas to play an away fixture and challenging stereotypes in women’s rugby – Newbury Ladies RFC are flying high, reports Fiona Tomas.
AS far as coaching careers go, Joe Harwood’s isn’t panning out too badly.
The 25-year-old is in his second year as head coach at Newbury Ladies RFC, having previously been the side’s assistant in a region that has experienced a prolific surge in women’s rugby of late.
While Newbury were one of the founding women’s teams in the Royal County – alongside stalwart club Reading Ladies RFC, which formed over 25 years ago – they have had to resist competition from other new teams in recent years.
There are currently no fewer than seven established women’s clubs across Berkshire – six of which have sprung up over the last eight years – and all play at a competitive level under the Rugby Football Union.
But promotion last season to Championship South West Two – the third tier of women’s rugby in England – was a huge milestone for three-time Berkshire Cup winners Newbury, who will be gunning for an impressive fourth consecutive crown come the end of the season.
And having won a remarkable eight league matches from nine at the highest level of rugby the side have ever played at, it is clear Newbury have embraced their championship status.
“Our goal before Christmas was to win four out of our eight league games and it has been very much to avoid relegation. To win eight out of eight is pretty amazing,” says Harwood, who admits women’s rugby in Berkshire has gone through the roof.
“In our first few games, it was still a bit, ‘Wow, how have we actually done this?’
“But the team’s success on and off the pitch is down to the players’ efforts – they are the hardest-working team I have ever come across.
“Now, it’s about keeping our feet on the floor and curbing those expectations.”
Their Championship identity means Newbury have racked up more miles on the road than in previous seasons – travelling as far as Guernsey in November, where they recorded a 32-12 win.
“It was a pretty awesome experience for everyone – we went there and back in a day,” says Harwood.
“It was a 15-hour day, so it was a pretty tiring experience, but it’s quite surreal when you think about it.
“When you look at the level we’re playing at – amateur women’s rugby – to fly to an away fixture is pretty cool – everyone was excited by it.”
Regardless of their amateur status, Newbury take pride in sitting higher up the pecking order than before.
The inaugural season of England Rugby’s elite women’s competition, the Tyrrells Premier 15s, has heralded a positive change in the perception of women’s rugby – not least the increased visibility the sport is gaining.
Like the Premiership players above them, Newbury are committed to gravitating towards a more professional set-up – a Get Berkshire Active nomination as the charity’s Team Performance of the Year for 2017 aiding them in their mission.
And while being shortlisted for such an accolade echoes what Harwood’s side have achieved over the past year, the challenges still resonate beyond the pitch.
When the club sent an entry to England Rugby in the organisation’s ‘Samsung Try of the Month’ competition last season, it was shortlisted and shared across the RFU’s Facebook page, which celebrated the good, bad and ugly still stifling the rugby world.
“We didn’t win the try of the month, but there were tons of positive and negative comments just about the standard, questioning whether the women’s standard is good enough,” recalls Harwood.
“Having been involved in women’s and girl’s rugby a while now, some of the criticism I’ve seen on social media is ridiculous.”
The try was scored by Newbury’s vice-captain, Meg Horwood – a well-worked move which showcased fine support play and a ball well presented at the ruck prior to crossing the whitewash.
The clip garnered more than 1,000 likes, countless shares and congratulatory comments, yet it was tinged with insulting remarks.
“One user even likened the video to ‘netball with shirt pulling and screaming’.
But in a testament to his positive mind set, Harwood channels such frustration into more enlightening debate about transcending gender boundaries in a sport which saw Ireland’s Joy Neville create history last month, when she became the first woman to referee a men’s European professional club fixture.
“There’s a lot of media attention and hype about getting more women and girls into rugby – which I’m totally supportive of.
“That includes coaches, refs and players,” he says.
“It’s who the best person is for the job – I don’t think gender necessarily matters at all.
“Yes, you want to get more women and girls in the sport, but you don’t want to give someone a coaching role because of their gender – they have to be good enough to do it.”
For now, Harwood is concentrating on extending his club’s table-topping form in a tough few weeks for Newbury, who will lock horns with second-place Reading Abbey in a crunch Berkshire derby later this month.
“I don’t think complacency will be an issue, but I’d be lying if I said I’ve not started thinking about promotion – and I think most of the players would be as well,” he says.
“It’s the biggest cliché in sport – but it’s about taking one game at a time, one training session at a time and continuing to improve, develop and work harder than ever.”
Newbury Ladies face Reading Abbey Ladies at Monks Lane on Sunday, January 28.
Fiona Tomas (@Fi_Tomas_)