For Jo Yapp, the opportunity to become the first full-time head coach of the Wallaroos and lead a talented squad on the road to Women’s Rugby World Cup 2025 was too good to turn down.
Yapp, the former England captain turned highly rated coach, had been alerted to the Australia vacancy following the demise of Worcester Warriors Women, the club she had helped build into contenders in England.
In the immediate aftermath of Worcester’s “heart-breaking” withdrawal from Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby, an outcome that took her by complete surprise, Yapp had devoted her time to making sure her players had clubs to go to.
But as time wore on and she went through the interview process with Rugby Australia, her enthusiasm about becoming the first female head coach of the Wallaroos grew stronger.
“The more I found out about it and obviously researched for my interviews, the more excited I became because I thought, actually this is a really exciting role and a real opportunity to develop something, which I really enjoy doing,” Yapp told World Rugby.
“The potential of the players that are there [is high], there’s obviously some really talented athletes but also… they're really looking to drive the programme forward.
“And that's not just from a financial perspective, although they are looking to increase investment, but they're also looking to really develop the programme and create a really high-performance programme for the players, which is what the players want.
“Obviously, that's something I really enjoy doing, so I was just like, ‘Yeah, this is something I want to be involved in’.”
Bridging the gap
Yapp will travel to Australia this month to begin her new role and is planning to hold one-to-one meetings with players, as well as visiting Super W clubs and coaches in January and February.
Her first match in charge of the Wallaroos will follow later in the year when her side compete in the World Rugby Pacific Four Series 2024.
The Wallaroos came third in last season’s tournament, a performance that earned them a place in the inaugural edition of WXV 1, in which they beat France and Wales to finish above both teams as well as hosts New Zealand in the standings.
Yapp will hope to build on those promising results as she attempts to improve on Australia’s position in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini and compete on a more consistent basis with England, New Zealand, France and Canada above them.
Since the rankings were introduced in February 2016, the Wallaroos have occupied a position between fifth and seventh, spending the majority of the past three years – and every week of the last eight months – one place outside the top four.
“Ultimately, the overall goal is to bridge the gap,” Yapp said. “Obviously, you’ve got [England], New Zealand and France and then Canada in the mix as well up there, and the Wallaroos have sat fifth for quite a while.
“We need to bridge the gap and look to try and be in that top four consistently but ultimately... there is a gap there. These are the teams who've been professional or in high performance programmes for a lot longer.
“So, that ultimately is the opportunity; to try and bridge that really.”
Yapp admits she will not know exactly how to succeed in that challenge until she lands in Australia and is able to “see things actually in action”.
“Right now, obviously, the priority for me is to really get to know the players that are in the programme on an individual basis,” she added. “Then to have a look around the clubs and see what depth is out there as well and to get to know the club game and get to know their coaches.
“Because ultimately we need to have a really collaborative approach to get the most out of individuals.”
Women’s Rugby World Cup lure
Although Yapp will not start officially until next week, she has been in contact with Australia’s National Women’s High-Performance Manager Jaime Fernandez and the former coaching group, which was led by Jay Tregonning, as she attempts to get an understanding of the challenge that awaits her on the other side of the world.
“They’ve been brilliant in terms of giving me a bit of insight,” Yapp said. “I'm on the phone pretty much every day at the moment because the more I can get to know and understand the programme, you know, the better really in terms of when I hit the ground.”
Rugby Australia and Yapp will both hope that she does so running, particularly as there is now less than two years to go until Women’s Rugby World Cup 2025 kicks off in Sunderland.
For someone who played in two Women’s Rugby World Cup finals, captaining England in their defeat to New Zealand in Edmonton in 2006, the chance to coach at the showpiece tournament was a huge lure.
Especially as she did not experience a Rugby World Cup in England as a player. “It’s really exciting,” Yapp said.
“The last time the World Cup was in England (in 2010), I'd literally just finished [playing] and kind of missed out on that, and I think the next World Cup is going to be even bigger than the last.
“You know, it was really successful in New Zealand, and I think England have obviously set themselves some really strong targets around filling Twickenham and things like that.
“So, that's really exciting, for anybody to be involved in that and involved in the women's game, that's a massive opportunity.”