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Sgt Sarah Batley (AGC (HQ)) is encouraging more women rugby players to join the front row union, saying that it can provide them with opportunities to develop and progress in the sport.

Front rowers are at a premium throughout the sport, but Sgt Batley says that you do not have to start playing as a prop or hooker to have a long career in either of those positions.

“I’ve worked with a few players who have transitioned to the front row over the last couple of seasons,” she says. “It’s about the right coaching, the right technique and the right skills it’s open to whoever wants to try it out. There’s an education piece which gives the knowledge to encourage people to try the front row.

“It’s really important that you don’t just throw people into the front row, it’s more about saying that we think they’d be good at it, suggesting that they do some training and seeing where things go. A great example is Maz Claassens, who played nine a few seasons ago and is now well set at loosehead prop. To see players like here shows that if you put everything in and buy into it then it can be done.”

Maz Claassens transitioned from a scrum half to loosehead prop.

Image © Lee Crabb

Sgt Batley speaks from experience. Indeed, she was first on the wing, before switching into the pack to become a Number 8 at Under-18 level then moving forward to prop in adult rugby. And it is there where she has won 25 caps for the Army and a further eight for UK Armed Forces.

“I got to a point where my growth spurt stopped and everyone went beyond me,” she explains. “I was never the fastest player either. So with coach mentoring I found my calling in the front row, and am still here now, so many years later.

“I played tag rugby at school and was told to get to the local girls team in Sandal. I threw myself around a bit, and it allowed me to progress to County and North of England, and then had a great opportunity of being picked up for Army Rugby through playing Corps sport. I’ve had some great opportunities to play rugby over the years, which has allowed me to see how much the women’s game has progressed; it’s in such a better place now to what it was.”

The growth of women’s rugby in the Army has been reflected by the expansion of the Corps Championship, which this year featured five teams. Having a thriving competition at that level is essential for the Army system to be sustainable long after the current crop of players has hung up their boots, according to Sgt Batley.

“It’s huge,” she says. “It’s not where it could be and within our cap badge it needs pushing forwards. I know there are people working hard in the background to make that happen. Every now and again you have someone joining the Army who’s played rugby for years, but that’s not always the case. For them to have the opportunity to play Corps sport, be highlighted for their talent and developed, it’s massively significant. For the Army squad to grow in the future that plays a vital part and across the board it needs to be bought into.

“Participation in some Corps is better than others, but the attendance at Army trials this year was fantastic. There was a really good vibe and an understanding of the expectation at Army level. It’s definitely heading in the right direction and people are buying into it, they’re passionate about it, and it’s growing legs.”

Action from this seasons Women’s Corps Final between the Royal Logistic Corps and Royal Artillery.

Image © Andrew Fosker

Sgt Batley has been in camp with the Army squad this week, preparing for a final shakedown against Leicester Tigers.

With the Royal Air Force already having a win over the Royal Navy under their belt last weekend, Saturday’s trip to the Tigers, who are preparing to join the Premier 15s later in the year, will provide the red shirts with the kind of opposition they need before seeking to retain the Inter-Services Championship title.

“It’s massive,” Sgt Batley says. “It’s a final opportunity before Inter-Services to put on the table what we’ve been working towards. We’re not blessed with prep time, but we’ve all been demanding those extra one percenters, so when it comes to camps and training before we play we can get more out of it.

“Tigers are a well drilled team and it will give us the kind of challenge we need before the Inter-Services. The level of rugby will put us into the right mindset before the RAF game.”

The Army’s game time has been relatively limited over the past few months. Nevertheless, Head Coach WO2 Sarah Mitchelson (RLC) has had the team working hard in training, a reflection of the demands that are coming from coaches and players alike.

“The expectation is there, so we’re asking more of each other, the coaches are asking more of us, and we’re utilising that time that we have together,” says Sgt Batley. “Huddy is angling it differently to what Smudge did, but we’re building on the ethos which we’ve had over the last few years and I think it’s heading in the right direction and progressing.

“What’s great about the programme is that it allows us to increase the intensity, and then turn it down. We’re managed really well, and among the team we’re very much aware that we’ve taken a few injuries in the front row. There’s the same issue across the women’s game.”

She has also been enjoying working with SSgt Ken Dowding (RA), who joined the coaching team this season after hanging up his own boots with 25 Army and 17 UKAF caps under his belt.

“It’s been great,” Sgt Batley says. “Ken brings a lot to the party. He’s full of information which allows us to work on ourselves as individuals as well as a pack. We’re not a massive pack, but in technique and tactical perspective we’re making massive improvements.

“He has a lot of fingers in different rugby pies, so to speak, and what’s great about that is that it brings so many things into our coaching set-up, which is a benefit to us.”

Ken Dowding is assistant coach to Sarah Mitchelson this season.

Image © Lee Crabb

For Sgt Batley and several members of the Army squad, the upcoming Inter-Services Championship represents an opportunity to bookend the season with silverware, having helped the UKAF team win the Plate at last autumn’s inaugural International Defence Force World Cup.

UKAF played Australia, Fiji, Vanuatu & Papua New Guinea and Tonga during a memorable few weeks in New Zealand, and Sgt Batley believes that this level of competition can only spur domestic Forces rugby to new heights ahead of the 2025 event, which will be staged in England.

“The tour to New Zealand was fantastic and lots of girls who’d been involved in the last I-S together to play at that level of rugby,” she says. “That allows us to go back to our Services and build what needs to be built on. Now we’re at the pinnacle of Service rugby and all three teams have been working hard. It’s competitive and exciting and on the platform it deserves.

“The opportunities off the pitch in New Zealand were around the World Cup buzz, but on the pitch it provided us with the challenge we needed, which will push into the Inter-Services. It was a different style of rugby which challenges you in different ways, and all the games brought us different work-ons. You don’t always get that.

“It’s great that the Women’s game has the Defence World Cup and when it comes to England in 2025 it’ll drive the recruitment up across the Services and take the game on.”

But long before then is the game at Kingsholm on April 15th, and with the RAF already with a win on the board Sgt Batley is expecting a similar 80 minutes to 12 months ago, when the Army were pushed all the way during their 24-10 win.

“Both teams have been away working hard, and in terms of how the Army RAF game has progressed over the years it’s going to be a tight game again,” she says. “Inevitably looking back at last year’s game and then looking forward there will be some questions which need to be answered. It’s an exciting time and both teams will be looking forward to it.”

Tickets for the 2023 Inter-Services Championship are now on sale.

CLICK HERE for information about the Army v RAF at Kingsholm, Gloucester, on Saturday, April 15th.

CLICK HERE for information about Army Navy at Twickenham on Saturday, May 13th.

Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks

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