Rachel Taylor believes there is an opportunity to build a “world-leading” women’s academy programme in North Wales.
Former Wales captain Taylor was appointed as the Welsh Rugby Union’s (WRU) first ever female regional academy skills coach earlier this month. One of her tasks in the multifaceted role is to create pathways for both male and female prospects in North Wales.
She has been buoyed by the popularity of community programmes in the region and is determined to give those women a platform on which to develop in senior rugby.
That is not something that was available at the beginning of Taylor’s playing career, when she moved to England to play for Bristol Ladies.
“The opportunity with the women and girls is just something that we haven’t done before, so there’s a real excitement around that,” the “proud North Walian” told World Rugby.
“When I was younger and I was playing I had to go over to England to get competitive rugby.
A world-leading academy
“For many of the girls, especially in the senior [Wales] women’s team, they are playing over in the Tyrrells Premier 15s, so I guess it’s trying to create an environment up here which means they don’t have to do that.
“And I guess we’ve got an opportunity to grow and develop what could be a world-leading academy programme for women. It could be a world first if we do it right.
“So I guess that’s the aim and obviously [to] make it sustainable as well, so we’re not just looking at rugby players, we’d be looking at developing coaches, developing referees, that whole part of rugby I suppose where the academies are just focusing on player development.
“So, yeah, there’s quite a lot of scope. I suppose what makes it quite nice is it’s kind of ours to try and develop up in North Wales. So we’ve got a bit of leeway there.”
Wales’ northern region has not traditionally been a hotbed for international talent, but that has changed in the past decade or so with George North, James King and Jess Kavanagh among those to emerge from its pathway.
“Some of the players that we’ve managed to help over the years gone by, obviously, is a credit to the people who are around or were around,” Taylor added.
“I think we’ve probably been a bit behind the curve as far as the competitive element.
A shop window for players
“But I think our view on developing players and individuals as rugby players and as people, if we get that right then we can produce world-class rugby players.
“So, I think it’s a different take maybe. We have’t previously had the numbers so it hasn’t been a rugby player factory but the ones that we’ve got we try to develop as a whole package and I think that’s probably where we can focus again with this new job role.”
As regional academy skills coach Taylor will work closely with RGC 1404, the Welsh Premier Division side founded by the WRU in 2008. She believes that the club has been a positive addition for North Wales, and is keen to foster a close relationship with new coach Matt Silva, who last week attended a training session led by Taylor.
“RGC has had a massive impact on North Wales. Just for the local players to have something to aspire to that puts them in the shop window to further their playing development is huge,” she said.
“Now we’re producing our own players which is hugely beneficial, and I think they bring a different intensity to it really and a different kind of pride around playing for the team and the region.
“Our support has gone up and up every year and I think it’ll be a tough year for them this year in the Premiership but I think with the introduction of Matt Silva, he seems like a great guy.
“I’ve chatted with him a few times and he came to watch me coach and stuff.
Our own identity
“That kind of close interaction with them is really key for us because we’d like to create our own playing identity I suppose and it’ll come from that senior entity.”
Taylor describes that coaching philosophy as “expansive, go-forward rugby” and she is keen to produce players who can “understand the game and the opportunities that are in front of them”.
As a former international flanker it will come as no surprise that the 36-year-old also has a big appetite for the defensive side of the game. But those more attacking instincts should stand her in good stead for spells with invitationals sides Barbarians and Crawshay’s Welsh RFC in the new season.
Taylor captained the Barbarians in only their second women’s match last March and preparing the team for a meeting with Wales at the Principality Stadium in November is another huge honour.
“The BaaBaas one is a bit of a blurry dream really,” she said. “To go from playing to captaining to coaching, in such a short amount of time, is incredible. Just the people that you get to be around in those environments, the stuff you can learn from them.
“It’s interesting as well just how much interest has come from the world, if you like, not just the players.
“I watched the England game [and] I was chatting to some of the Kiwi girls after and just the interest that they want to play for the BaaBaas is just really exciting, I suppose and the chance for us to bring those players together.
“The opportunities have just developed and I think now with the Crawshay’s thing as well, that will only help the standard of rugby we’re playing in Wales - to give people another level of an outlet to aim for.”
The Barbarians’ match against Wales will form part of a double-header alongside a meeting the two men’s sides. Twickenham played host to a similar fixture with England in June when a crowd of around 18,000 watched the women’s match.
For Taylor, the November date could have a transformative effect on women’s rugby in Wales.
“I think it’ll be huge,” she said. “Where it falls in the men’s calendar as well. Obviously after the Rugby World Cup, if everything goes to plan, then people will want to come and see that Welsh team again.
“I think the BaaBaas bring a different audience, it’s an opportunity to watch some of the world’s best players play creatively.
“Men’s rugby is so structured now it’s quite a pleasure to watch rugby like that, and just for us to be at the Principality Stadium with a double-header with them and the women’s team is just a massive step forward for Wales, really.
“The profile they’ll get off that game will be huge.”