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LADIES TEAM SPIRIT GROWS THROUGH LOCKDOWN

By David Wilkinson

Like all rugby players, it’s been a very frustrating time for the Ladies’ squad, their development from a standing start, in 2018, was difficult enough, but just when they got their squad together the bad weather hit last winter, and then Covid-19 put paid to everything. Like all the other teams at Macclesfield Rugby Club, the Ladies stuck together as best they could during the first lockdown; after all, they had already been through a lot together.

I recently spoke to co-Captain of the Ladies, Kirsty Wallis, about the team and how she came to be playing at the Club: “My son had been going to Rugby Tots and was about ready to move up, but he told me that he didn’t want to play anymore unless I did! Fair enough I thought, and by chance, that week, I saw an advertisement for Ladies Rugby at Macclesfield Rugby Club; and so I joined, he then couldn’t back out and now plays for the U7s”. Kirsty is now the Club’s Bar Manager as well as being co-Captain with Mandy. There’s a great team of Ladies that make the squad happen, Liz Jarratt, Secretary (Liz is also part of the Club’s Mental Wellbeing team); Lora Dove, Team Manager; Phum, who looks after the kit; Rebecca Scott, Fixtures; and Robin, Social Secretary – although most have had little to do during the past ten months. Mary Thorp had originally got the Ladies re-started, but now living in Salford she focuses purely on the playing side.

The Ladies’ squad now numbers around 30 players in total with up to 25 turning-up for training sessions. According to Kirsty, the squad has players from 17 to over 40 years of age: “We all gel really well together, there are some ladies that were already playing the game, some that have come back to it after a break from the game, and people like me who were completely new to it. I used to play football, but always watched rugby at some of the local clubs, when the opportunity came to join Macclesfield it was a no-brainer, I just wished that I’d started 20 years ago”.

Kirsty talked about where the team was at, in its development stage, saying that it’s not always possible to get a full fifteen out, particularly for away fixtures as many are mums with time constraints. She told me that whilst her preferred position was Hooker, that given their development stage everyone was prepared to muck-in and play in any position required on the day and that Simon Dempsey and Dom McCarthy, their coaches, guided them through that process.

It’s been a very difficult time for the Ladies to develop a team and indeed Ladies rugby per se, but there’s already a second generation that will be waiting in the wings to boost ladies rugby in the years to come. In 2020, against all odds, a girls section was born. Headed up my Ladies player Pip Gregory, the girls who start from U13s, now number around 20 for their training sessions (when allowed).

The Ladies team plays, when it can, in the Greater Manchester and Cheshire Development Merit Table; all the teams are in a similar position, learning how to play the game while having a lot of fun. Talking to Kirsty the camaraderie in the team was brilliant: “It was great to be training again, we all loved it, back together having fun, this latest lockdown has hit hard after the first one; but we’re trying to keep in touch with Zoom calls and calling each other for a chat, to make sure everyone is all right and to keep us all going”.

During the stop-start nature of the past ten months, Kirsty said that the concentration had all been on enjoyment, developing basic skill-sets while just enjoying the game: “We like to throw the ball about at the moment, looking for gaps and playing in the channels; having said that, we’re just so looking forward now to starting a new season, we are desperate to start playing again with scrums and mauls, we don’t want to play a rugby league style game, just proper rugby”. Kirsty’s passion about playing the game is obvious, as is how much she misses both the physicality and the craic of getting mucky with the other girls and sharing bruises and tales of tackles in the bar afterwards – no different to the guys in the Spiral Lounge after a tough Saturday’s afternoon encounter.

Kirsty is very proud of her own progression playing the game; she’s adamant that it’s a game for anyone and at five-foot-two she’ll usually be looking up at most of her opponents. Her first game was against Stockport, where she was thrown in at the deep end to play Hooker. It must have been a success as she was awarded Man-Of-the-Match (her words); she says that she was gob-smacked and then played in every game for the rest of the season. At the End of Season Awards, Kirsty went on to receive the Most Improved Player of the Year; she told me: “I may have cried; I got a bit emotional because it was presented on a Zoom call by England Flanker Jo Brown”. The highlight of the season for Kirsty would be scoring her first try for the team against the ‘Ladies of Moore’, and on the first team pitch no-less; at 45-22 it sounds as if it was a cracker.

In describing the team, Kirsty says that they are a bit of a bunch of misfits, all shapes and sizes, different ages and backgrounds, but together they make a phenomenal team. The smallest player is apparently Annie, who at 17 years of age is a slight, but speedy winger. Annie currently trains with the team, but next season will be old enough to play; she is the cousin of ex-Macc and Sale Sharks star Sam James, who along with his brother Luke, has also been helping out with coaching sessions.

Lead coach of the Ladies is ex 1stXV player Simon Dempsey; Demps had this to say about the Ladies: “Finding myself in the unusual position of enjoying a ‘couple’ of pints at the Club I was asked by some of the players if I would get involved in coaching the Ladies team. Assuming they were just being polite and making conversation, I only realised through the haze the following day they were serious. So 2 years ago my journey began with the ladies team, which I have honestly thoroughly enjoyed.

What is so fantastic about coaching rugby, in particular, is the real diversity in personality, ability and individual journeys each player takes, culminating in all hopefully delivering a competitive game with respect, integrity, passion, sportsmanship and discipline. The squad has certainly developed inability, enthusiasm, and numbers and has genuinely come together both on and off the pitch. There is a real team spirit growing within the squad and as a Coach, I feel that is more than half the battle.

The make-up of the coaching team, in particular the support of Dominic McCarthy, has brought a different dimension to training and the help of Tony, Russ, Hayden and Ozzy have kept a great balance of development and fun throughout. The buzz and excitement of being involved with such a great squad have attracted another rugby family pedigree to the coaching team, Nathan Thomas, son of Justin.

Unfortunately, we have all been disrupted and affected by the pandemic; with sport taking the unprecedented steps in suspending all activity, and with us still not understanding the impact it has had physically and emotionally. So it is with much anticipation I look forward to returning to coaching as soon as restrictions are lifted, and the green light is given – to keep making fewer mistakes but still learning from them!”

After a few false-starts in the past, Ladies Rugby is here to stay at Macclesfield Rugby Club; it is wholly part of our ‘One Club’ ethos. The sport is one of the fastest-growing around the world; and Chairman of World Rugby, Billy Beaumont, had this to say about it last year: “We firmly believe that the development of women in rugby is the greatest single opportunity for our sport to grow in the next decade”.

Whilst it will probably be some weeks before any kind of activity resumes if you know of anyone that might want to get involved, or if you would like to sponsor the team, check out the Club website or the Macclesfield Ladies RUFC Facebook page.

Priory Park is currently incomplete lockdown but there are a few things happening online. A silent auction is taking place via the website with 28 lots of memorabilia on offer, most of which are unique plus a ’Botham’s Ashes’ limited edition.

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