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As the Women’s red shirt team prepares to bring the curtain down on a memorable season with a trip to Cherbourg to play FRN this Saturday, head coach Maj Gemma Stonebridge-Smith MBE (AGC (ETS)) believes that Army and Services rugby has the potential to play an important role in the development of the sport in England.

Women’s rugby has been growing rapidly at the top end of the English pyramid, with the national team retaining its Six Nations title for a fourth successive year and the Premier 15s seeing more involvement and collaboration between men’s Premiership clubs and their women’s counterparts, with Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears reaching the play-offs for the first time.

Outside the rugby community women’s elite sport in general has been on an upward trajectory, with two examples being the Women’s FA Cup final setting record attendance levels year-on-year, and the Women’s Hundred having parity with the Men’s competition.

This has meant that while the Army Women had the disappointment in seeing their maiden Twickenham outing be delayed from 2020 to 2022, Maj Stonebridge-Smith says that when the Army Navy match did take place at the home of English rugby it did so in a different macro-environment than even just two years previously.

“It should just be the norm in how things are done,” she says. “In a weird sort of way, it not happening in 2020 and happening this year has been fortuitous. There’s been a big movement in women’s rugby outside of the Services, and we had the Six Nations going on the same weekend, and we landed in an environment where playing at Twickenham is expected.

“That’s what’s been really good, and extended across the whole Inter-Services campaign where there was parity in terms of funding, the hotel we stayed in, and so on, and demonstrates what the Services are doing for equality across women’s sport.

“In the Services we’re well placed to be able to drive that change. We’ve done that really well this season but also building up into this season and it’s great that we’re there.”

The Army and Royal Navy Women made their Twickenham debut in 2022.

Image © Army v Navy Match – Neil Kennedy

Army personnel are also regularly seen across the Premier 15s, with players having represented a third of the league’s clubs this season. With those individuals also experiencing red shirt matches at Kingsholm and Twickenham and representing the UK Armed Forces on the international stage, all with the support of their chains of command, Maj Stonebridge-Smith says that the Army is demonstrating the good practice from employers which players need to achieve their sporting ambitions.

“We’ve already shown with the girls who are playing Premier 15s that we’re an employer who is really supportive of sport,” she says. “A lot of them have been able to get jobs close to their clubs so they can carry on playing in a professional set-up, their bosses are generally willing to allow them to get out of work a little bit early so they can go and do their rugby training, but they’re very much in the same space as if you were a doctor or firefighter, they’ve got to catch up on the work that they’ve missed.

“But overall as an employer we’re in a good space to build up women’s sport in general, not just rugby.”

There is also a parallel between the Inter-Services Championship and the Six Nations in that, like England, the Army has dominated the Women’s competition for a number of years, with the RAF’s title win in 2019 the only time the overall trophy has not headed back to Aldershot.

And while she remains committed to continuing this run for the red shirts, Maj Stonebridge-Smith also acknowledges the need for there to be strength in depth across all of Forces rugby.

“I think it’s really important for the sport generally that these are competitive fixtures,” she comments. “What I would say though is that while the scoreline may have been similar to previous Army Navy games, the Navy were a fundamentally better side this year. We had to create every one of our points from quality rugby.

“So the Navy are on the right trajectory; they’ve got more support now from their Union and are recruiting players with rugby pedigree back off ship in the same way they’ve been doing with the Senior men. So I do think it’s going in the right direction and that it’ll only take a couple more years before we see that genuinely being a competitive fixture.

“In the same way other national unions are talking about needing more full-time contracts for their players, we in the ARU are in a similar space with the Navy and the RAF. We’ve had the backing of the ARU for quite a while, the Army’s chain of command has released people for sport, and the Navy and the RAF have now cottoned onto that as well.

“You might be losing your player for a week, but when they’re then splashed all over social media as a rugby player that’s part of RAF this or HMS that is actually a really good engagement and recruitment tool.”

Nevertheless, Maj Stonebridge-Smith also sees the positive impact which success at the top end of Army rugby has on the sport throughout the Service, with the team’s trophies complemented by the individual recognition for the likes of Bdr Bethan Dainton (RA) with the Barbarians, Bdr Dainton, SSgt Jade Mullen (AGC (SPS)) and Capt Gemma Rowland (RA) with Wales, and most recently Pte Courtney Pursglove (RLC), who was called up by England Sevens for a series of exhibition matches during the 2022 World Sevens Series leg in London.

Pte Courtney Pursglove, 6 Regt RLC was selected by England 7s for three exhibition matches played at the London 7s.

Image © Neil Kennedy

“We’ve really demonstrated in the Inter-Services campaign the quality of rugby player we’ve got and are generating,” she says. “And a lot of our girls who haven’t played in the Premier 15s yet are getting calls to train. That’s really positive.

“It’s galvanised the community level, and I think we could really capitalise on that. People like Amy Carr came into the Army with a bit of rugby pedigree before she arrived, and in her first six-to-eight months of being in the Army is playing at Twickenham. Stories like that we need to be sharing around rugby clubs at age grade level to show that there is a way of being a professional rugby player, where you’re paid by the Army and can play rugby.”

With the dust having now settled on the 2022 Inter-Services Championship, there is no disguising how much pleasure Maj Stonebridge-Smith got from the afternoon against the Royal Navy, when the team put together a perfect 80 minutes which included 10 tries scored and no points conceded.

“I was really pleased with what the team brought to Twickenham,” she says. They absolutely nailed the game plan. It’s been four years of building that style of rugby and it came together on the day, which was fantastic.

“That’s not just on the pitch. The whole environment that’s been created this season to build them up to that point was really positive. Ultimately, it’s the player leadership group that instils the culture, and Jade and Beth have done a fantastic job in holding people to account but having the empathy and humility to understand that it takes time and that we can’t change a culture overnight. They’ve driven that and been supported really well by other sensible heads who are also professional athletes in their approach.

“At the other end we’ve had new players coming in who are humble enough so that when they’ve been told they’ve done something wrong to come back and say sorry. It’s stemmed from them being comfortable being uncomfortable with each other, not having discussions outside of meetings, and being good people.

“Good people make good rugby players, who make good teams, and everyone’s bought into that, which is great.”

Overall the 2021/22 season will go down as a highlight within the Army Women’s history, and while Maj Stonebridge-Smith is on the receiving end of the plaudits as the head coach she has no hesitation in paying tribute to the hard work and effort of everyone behind the scenes who has helped make the success possible.

“I’ve had the best season,” she says. “Yes, we’ve had issues in terms of getting opposition or fixtures being cancelled, but we were still able to bring the girls together to maximise the training opportunity.

“There’s no way I would have been able to play Army rugby or take the role of head coach without the support of my wife Amy. She’s had to solo parent our two young children for a week of a month for a six-month period for the last however many years.

“Between your family having to hold everything at home and your boss having to accept you’re not going to be in work for a week – that’s just for the players, for the coaching staff one week of rugby is actually two weeks of work – you can’t do without them.

“Even those without partners we saw their parents come from all parts of the country to watch that rugby game.

“It’s a really big deal.”

Past and present, it was 25 years in the making that saw the Army Women’s team make their debut at Twickenham and past players were present to celebrate with the team.

Image © Army v Navy Match – Nick Flexman

Maj Stonebridge-Smith is also looking further ahead than just Saturday’s game, too.

“There are some players who are hanging up their boots at the end of the season and we’ve worked hard to make sure that there’s someone there to fill that slot,” she says.

“It’s then also pulling through and using the success of Inter-Services back in that engagement at the front end, supporting the ARU in Community rugby, in Corps rugby, to make sure we’re selling the brand we’re playing in the red shirt all the way down the pathway. So that as players move up and become more technically and tactically competent, they arrive in the red shirt understanding the fundamentals of how we want to play.

“I’m excited to see where this talented group of players can take this going forwards and play with it, taking a bit of risk with our framework and structure to keep driving forwards. It’s taken a while for some of them to buy into how I want us to play rugby, and I’ve accepted that as a coach, but to have some of the older players come off the back of Inter-Services saying that they really enjoyed how we were playing and being involved in everything, as a coach, seeing players enjoying the style of rugby they’re being asked to play, is the best feeling. You’ve done something by creating something that they’re proud of.”

Words © New Dogs, Old Tricks

Header and featured image © Army v Navy Match – Andrew Fosker

The starting Army team to play the French Navy Women will be selected from the following squad: