Danielle Waterman had expected to have a watching brief in Chengdu this week, exploring a city famed for its giant panda population while supporting boyfriend Simone Moretti as he represented the Italian Fire Department at the 2019 World Police and Fire Games.
Pandas have still featured on the Women’s Rugby World Cup winner’s itinerary but when the sevens competition kicked off in central China on Wednesday morning she had swapped spectating for coaching.
Waterman, who is currently working towards the RFU Level 4 Coaching Award, had been looking for more hands-on opportunities when the coach who had planned to travel with the open side was forced to pull out.
She was approached by Moretti to fill the void and although Waterman initially thought she would be leading her partner’s over-35 side, she grasped the more competitive role with both hands.
“The fact that they’ve asked me and the way that they’ve supported me and treated me has been brilliant,” Waterman told World Rugby from Chengdu.
“I was offered the opportunity and I thought it would be good fun, but when I realised what it was I was definitely pretty nervous before coming out here.”
Although Waterman only met the squad for the first time last Tuesday, when she flew to Rome to join the team ahead of their flight to China, she had a few months to prepare for the Games.
But her anxiety stemmed from the fact that she does not speak Italian and was a woman walking into a male environment.
“I was quite nervous because, as with anybody that’s competitive, as a player I was really competitive, I wanted to be the best, and as a coach I still want to deliver,” she explained.
“I still want to do the best that I can. And I wanted to make sure the players straight away had the impact that they needed and they knew what I was about, who I was as a coach.”
Waterman has relied on the team’s strength and conditioning coach, who can speak reasonable English, and a small whiteboard on which she draws instructions, in order to overcome the language barrier.
The Wasps Ladies full-back also sought the advice of her club coach Giselle Mather on how to go about coaching a men’s side as a woman.
“She was brilliant. She kept just saying to me ‘Have the most amazing time, enjoy it and enjoy the opportunity’ but she also said to be really clear,” Waterman said.
“Giselle has had a huge impact on my career and it’s really good for me to be able to have a female that I massively respect as a coach irrelevant of her gender.
“She’s obviously worked in the men’s game and that’s why I thought it was really important to be able to tell this story because actually people need to read that it’s happening.”
Waterman need not have worried about the reception she received from the players.
“It’s just been really good fun and it’s quite a young squad that I’m working with,” Waterman added. “They’d never been coached by a woman before but they were sent my playing CV before I arrived and they were all so respectful.
“They were, I don’t know, a little bit blown away by what I’d done. It was quite strange for me because obviously I know I’ve achieved a reasonable amount in the game but the respect from the male players … to have a female coach didn’t make any difference.
“I was someone who had done a lot in the game who they were excited to have coach them.”
Spirit of rugby
Waterman added: “What I would say to other females who are nervous about working with men, is if you’re confident in what you do and you work hard to be the best that you can be it doesn’t make any difference who you’re coaching.
“Because the respect comes from the quality of what you do rather than whether you’re a man or a woman, and I think that’s really quite key.”
While in China Waterman has been keen to foster morale among all the sevens sides representing Italy in Chengdu. A team trip to see pandas was organised, while a karaoke session helped to relax more than just vocal cords.
“One of the most important things in rugby is team spirit,” she said. “Building the friendships and having fun and creating memories is something that definitely I learnt as a player and I loved.”
On the pitch, Waterman hoped to lead her side to the final of the open competition and roped in a few famous friends to help inspire the players at Tuesday night’s shirt presentation.
“I actually got some messages from around the world for the players. Not bad names, I got Bryan Habana, Dan Norton, Sean Fitzpatrick and Abbie Brown - and my Dad!” she said.
Sources of inspiration
“At the start of the week I said [to the players], ‘You know, sevens is brutal obviously and you’ve got to have something that motivates you and someone that inspires you because it’s horrible, it’s so painful’.
“And I spoke about the fact that one of my biggest fears as a player was to let my team-mates down but one of my biggest motivations was my Dad and the fact that he inspired me as a player.
“So I’ve got my Dad to do a short message for the team to bring to life me as a player and me as a coach but also to show them that it is really important for them to have inspiration in their careers.”
Following an international career that spanned 15 years and included 74 caps and three Women’s Rugby World Cup finals for England and a trip to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with Team GB, it seems unlikely that many of Waterman’s team-mates ever felt let down.
Waterman will not be involved in the start of Wasps’ Tyrrells Premier 15s campaign as she concentrates on Rugby World Cup 2019 commentating duties with ITV.
Fans should not read that as an indication she will retire imminently, however. Waterman insists her experience in China has “definitely given me the buzz to probably carry on playing” but it would appear a career in coaching, the media – or both – lies ahead.
Grab any opportunity
“There haven’t been that many female commentators, there’s not many female coaches,” Waterman said.
“But the more I’m doing, the more I’m realising it’s just rugby and I should be confident and I should put myself forward for the opportunities and be OK with the fact that I might be the only female [and] that doesn’t make any difference.
“Because everybody I’ve worked with, the questioning of my ability is from myself it’s not from them.
“It’s like the players. The players don’t see me any differently, they just didn’t know what to expect because I was English!
“So, that’s probably quite a key point for any women in the game, whether it be coaching, playing, media, refereeing and officiating, that where are the limitations coming from?
“Are they from the lack of opportunity or are they from a lack of confidence in yourself to go and put yourself forward for an opportunity?
“I think that that’s something that I’ve really learned from this. If you get given an opportunity, take it with two hands because who knows where it could go.”