Given Giselle Mather worked as a PE teacher while playing fly-half for England it was probably not much of a surprise that she was attracted to coaching when deciding to hang up her boots.
As the Wasps Ladies director of rugby says, the prospect of putting on a training session was “not an issue” for someone already employed to do just that Monday to Friday.
But it was the opportunity to get to grips with the tactical battle – without having the aches and pains of playing – while ensuring that 22 or 23 individuals pulled in the same direction that really hooked her in.
Asked what attracted her to coaching, Mather replied: “I was a fly-half and my love of the game of chess, the tactics, the game understanding, I love that.
“‘Where’s the space?’ ‘If I do this will they do this?’ ‘Let’s try this, what works for this group of players?’ I just love all that.
“The other thing that I really love is that rugby is 22 (players) in clubland, 23 international – that’s a lot of people.
Passion for coaching
“And the teamwork of getting those players all onto one page, all moving in the same direction, all loving what they do, all passionate about [it], I just love that.”
Mather, a Women’s Rugby World Cup winner as a player with England in 1994, was backs coach when the Red Roses lost to the Black Ferns in the final in Edmonton, Canada, 12 years later.
By the time she took charge of the Barbarians for the invitational side’s first female outing in 2017, she had returned to Wasps Ladies – the team she coached to back-to-back Premiership titles in 2003 and 2004 – as full-time director of rugby.
Mather led the club to a play-off semi-final in the inaugural Tyrrells Premier 15s season, and her side currently sit fourth with two regular season games to play.
But her influence has not been reserved solely for the women’s game. Mather worked with the Elite Player Development Groups at London Irish between 2005 and 2015, and headed up the club’s AASE programme as well for seven of those years.
Her role allowed her to become “a small piece in their puzzle” for a number of high-profile male players.
Gender not an issue
While at Irish, Mather helped Alex Corbisiero, Joe Cokanasiga, Jonathan Joseph, Tom Homer, Dave Sisi, Marcus and Anthony Watson and Johnny Williams – among others – on their journeys to professional rugby.
“When you see them (win) their first caps – I’ve only been a small piece in that puzzle and it’s important I stress that,” she said, “but it’s huge to see.
“Now, I remember some of the sessions, I had to challenge them, I had to coach them.
“When you first stand up in front of a new group of male players it’s (hard) but in my job within 10 minutes that’s not their issue anymore, they’re concentrating on what they’re doing. They’re not bothered that it’s a female asking them to do stuff.
“I’ve coached new groups where you can see it stencilled across their foreheads. ‘What the hell do you know’ and then they challenge you and you’re ready and you work them and you tweak what you’re doing and you respond, and before you know it they don’t (care).
“And that for me is why gender isn’t my issue. I coach and if I’m not coaching well enough is that because I’m a girl or because I wasn’t prepared for my session or because I pitched it wrong?
Knowledge not gender
“I would say it’s not because I’m a girl, it’s because I’ve not been prepared properly or I haven’t pitched it right or I didn’t know enough about where the athletes were at.
“It’s not because I’m a girl. When I coach a good session is that because I’m a girl? No, it’s because I know what I’m doing, I know what I wanted out of the session, I know the athletes, I can see when things aren’t right and correct them.
“Other people put my gender as my first thing, it’s not.”
Her break at Irish came after she met Toby Booth while the pair completed their Level 3 coaching course, Mather with her six-week-old baby daughter in toe.
“I knew I was ready to take my Level 3 at that time and just because I had a child with me who I needed to feed didn’t mean that I couldn’t take it,” she said.
Mather would go on to become the first woman to gain the RFU Level 4 coaching qualification and while still juggling her roles at Irish, she coached Teddington between 2008-12 and led the Antlers on a 63-game unbeaten run.
Such achievements have led to suggestions, in the past, that she could break down barriers for female coaches in the English Premiership.
“The way I look at this is, it’s not just about me in that sense,” she said. “First of all I need to be ready, I need to have the right skill set, I need to know what I’m about.
“That’s the first side of it but then that’s the same for anyone going for a job. The next part of it is the rest of the world needs to be ready.”
Mather believes that for it to happen the right candidate would need to find their own Booth.
“He didn’t give a monkey’s that I was female,” she added. “He saw that I could relate to athletes, that I knew what I was talking about and I could add value to what he was running. And he didn’t care.
“Now, we need that to get those first opportunities. You have to change people’s perceptions, people’s cultural ideas – what they’ve grown up with.
“Girls don’t play rugby. Girls don’t play football. Girls don’t play cricket. Well, we’ve proved that we all do that so the next step is ‘OK if girls do all that, do girls coach that? Can girls coach men?’
“And we just have to go through that evolutionary period. I’ve been very much part of that, my life’s been about that. Educating people that yes, I can.”