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From PT to professional England Women's star: Vicky Fleetwood explains how professional deals helped Six Nations Grand Slam bid

Interview: Fleetwood returns to the England XV on Saturday as England chase a Six Nations Grand Slam, but she explains that while professional deals have helped, there's no substitute for raw talent and the backing of home support

Jack de Menezes
Saturday 16 March 2019 12:19 GMT
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Vicky Fleetwood starts this weekend against Scotland
Vicky Fleetwood starts this weekend against Scotland (Getty)

Twickenham is poised to celebrate a Six Nations Grand Slam success on Saturday that may be the most impressive seen in the last 23 years, should England swat aside Scotland as is expected.

That is England Women of course. The men’s side have long seen their Grand Slam hopes ended, and while they could still end the day with the championship, it’s clear that the most likely celebrations will come a few hours after.

Simon Middleton’s side have won four from four and conceded just 45 points in a remarkable demonstrating of their European superiority this season. Should they go on to make it a clean sweep against Wooden Spoon favourites Scotland, it will be their second in the space of three years and a hint towards another spell of domination that saw them win every Six Nations title between 2006 and 2012.

Why could this domination be on the cards? Three key reasons are behind this: Squad depth, an game moving in the right direction and professional contracts.

Plenty of attention has been placed on the latter, particularly in light of the Rugby Football Union’s decision after the 2017 Rugby World Cup not to renew the 15-a-side contracts and focus solely on Sevens. The backlash was fierce, especially when male players make around £24,000-per-appearance, and soon enough 28 new professional contracts were offered - as well as seven additional slots in the Elite Player Squad - that has seen the best female players in the country go full-time.

That has led to plenty of nonchalance towards England’s dominant form by critics who believe that they should be leaps and bounds above the rest, but as Rugby World Cup winner Vicky Fleetwood tells The Independent, there is much more to the team’s success than new glossy contracts.

“It does help but those contracts only started in January and the Six Nations started in February. The first week together was fitness testing and things like that,” says Fleetwood, who returned from seven weeks out injured to score the final try in last Saturday’s emphatic 55-0 victory over previously unbeaten Italy.

“I know it’s been used time and time again as to why we’re performing well but at the same time you’ve got to look at the bunch of girls that we’ve got and each and every one that is involved in the England squad has such a drive and a mindset to want to improve and to be the best. Yes we’ve been really fortunate to be able to train a little bit more together and we don’t have to worry about going back to work between games and things like that, we can focus on recovery and then go straight back into training feeling rested and recovered rather than having to go straight back to work, working a full-time job, and then train and play around it which is what we’ve had to do in the past.

“That is a really big thing that is improving and something that I think is helping our performance, but at the same time I believe that we’d still be pretty dominant simply because of the girls that we do have have such a strong mindset and want to improve and be better each time we take to the field.”

Vicky Fleetwood returned from a seven-week knee injury in the win over Italy

That determination to step up another level could spell bad news for Scotland come 7:30pm on Saturday when the two sides run out at Twickenham shortly after the men’s encounter, especially as Fleetwood reveals that the players weren’t even that happy with the crushing win last weekend.

But what was even more eye-opening than the scoreline was the 10,545 record attendance that filled Exeter’s Sandy Park for match. It produced a passionate and partisan atmosphere that helped spur the Red Roses on to the landslide win, and when comparing the two, Fleetwood admits that there is something special when England Women take their games on the road away from Twickenham to stand in their own right.

“It was honestly so cool,” she adds. “The whole stadium was packed, when we’ve had big crowds before we’ve been playing in a big stadium, and when we do get those figures at Twickenham after the men’s game they’re normally in just two stands, so two others are completely empty. You don’t get that same atmosphere, and it was just fantastic to run out to such a big crowd and everyone was singing Swing Low and it was honestly amazing.

“Hopefully some of those that were there, obviously it’s a long way from Exeter to Twickenham but if they were watching us last weekend then they might make the trip to watch us again this weekend, and hopefully they enjoyed the game and want to see more which is what we want to do. We want to keep building that fan base and keep showing what we can do, keep those fans in there and wanting to come back and watch us again. We stayed around after the game and tried to engage with them by signing autographs and taking photographs etc because we really appreciate it and we want to show how much we appreciate them coming to support us.”

The professional deals have helped secure new sponsorships like Fleetwood's deal with OPRO

But while the squad depth has undoubtedly increased and the crowds at record highs, there’s no looking beyond the fact that the professional deals have helped massively. Fleetwood was one of the select few who switched between the 15s and Sevens sides, ensuring that she has been on professional terms for the last three seasons. But when the big decision came, it was not an easy one. The Saracens forward, whose return to the England side has seen her playing at flanker while covering the set-piece duties of hooker in a display of versatility rarely seen at international level, was a full-time personal trainer before the first offer arrived in 2015. The new professional deals are helping to attract more attention and interest in the women’s game as well as individual sponsorship deals, something Fleetwood herself has benefitted from in signing up with rugby mouthguard experts OPRO, but the money is not yet there to financially reward the women’s team as the men are. In short, many of the team had to take pay cuts to go professional.

Fleetwood explains: “That was probably the hardest decision as I had to leave a job that obviously I loved, but at the same time it meant that I was able to do my hobby as a job and at the end of the day that became no-brainer. Yes I wasn’t going to be earning the same amount of money than if I’d just been personal training, but I’ve been playing rugby for years and years and never really dreamt of being able to do it as a job and the fact that I was then offered that role, I couldn’t really turn it down.

“We came back from the Sevens World Cup (in July), I knew that I was ending with Sevens and knew that there were 15s contracts on the horizon but we didn’t know who would be offered them. So I just went back to personal training and it’s a job that just works well with rugby and the fact that everything you do off the pitch, half of that stuff can be done in the gym and you need to be in a gym environment to do it for your weights and conditioning and those types of things, so it’s good to have that access.

“Being in a gym you can do a session between clients, between classes, and you don’t have to go anywhere, you’re already at the gym. So it just ties in with rugby quite well, and I just love being in the gym so for me I just thought ‘right I’m going back to personal training’. I loved it when I did it before, I’m still managing to do bits and pieces around playing full time as well so I’ve been at work this morning and I’ve trained as well, so I’ll come back home and get another session in later.”

Vicky Fleetwood went from a personal trainer to a professional rugby player

One way the RFU helps to promote the women’s game is opening the Twickenham doors for free entry to watch the women’s match - something they have done for a number of years now. But while the team is playing on the biggest platform in their attempts to track down the Black Ferns in the hope of reclaiming the Rugby World Cup off New Zealand in 2021, progress has moved on to making the individual names just as big as the Red Roses.

“It gets you out there,” Fleetwood adds. “The fact that I’m with OPRO and they’re supporting me, and a lot of girls in the women’s game now have agents and that kind of thing to help support and secure earnings or build a profile for themselves, it really showcases women’s rugby and shows the best parts of the individual as well as the team.

“What you see in the men’s game is that people know the individual players a bit more. They know who they are and they know their backgrounds a little bit, so actually having the social media aspects of it now and having Instagram and Twitter, people almost feel as if they know the players and I think that’s what they want. They want to be able to interact with the players and get to know them as individuals and how they’re doing as individuals and how well they’re doing as a team.”

Vicky Fleetwood is an ambassador of leading mouthguard company OPRO. For more information visit www.opromouthguards.com

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