“I don’t think that anyone will be able to replicate it in the next 20 years.”
Cheltenham Tigers have emerged from the tough COVID period to be on the verge of a historic double league triumph. Neither of the Newlands Park women’s teams have enjoyed a more successful season than this one in their history.
The first team have run away in their division after having finalized their 85-14 thrashing against Sefton Ladies. Meanwhile the second’s are on the verge of taking home the South West (East) league title with two games left to play this season.
Head coach Harry Wilson believes the Tigers’ achievements will be unrivaled at Newlands for decades to come.
“Because of the direction women’s rugby is going in, people always move on, so you’re not always going to have the same squad,” he says. “This season’s achievements are absolutely huge. These things don’t happen very often whether it’s your playing or coaching career.
“This is the highest number of players we’ve ever had. About four years ago when I started, we had an average attendance at training of 10-12. ” The club now expect around 60 players for each training session.
Tigers have confirmed that they will not be making the step up to Premiership next season. “It’s not a viable option for our club because you need a lot of money,” Wilson says.
For now, Wilson has a clear vision to be the best Championship club at a national level, alongside his own views of how successful women’s clubs can progress in the future. “We’d love to see a National Championship and I feel from a club point of view, we’d rather be the best Championship club out there.”
Several players’ form has earned them higher level opportunities, including Premiership club Gloucester-Hartpury and Wales recognition for full-back Emma Hennessy.
“We’ve had girls play in the Premiership and internationals this season, so slowly we are becoming recognized,” Wilson says proudly. “I think we can really really push those lower Premiership teams, I don’t see why not.”
Hennessy made her international debut when she put on the red jersey for Wales Women against the USA Falcons on March 12. Wales fell to 31-23 defeat against the Falcons at home but they are now looking forward to starting their Women’s Six Nations run against Ireland on March 26.
Tigers forwards Eeva Pouhjanheimo and Jordan Russell played for Gloucester-Hartpury in the Allianz 15s Cup against Saracens Women on Sunday, March 13.
In stark contrast to the days where the club struggled to get enough players for a team, Wilson admits that they almost have too many players after their transformation in fortunes. “We planned it to be a squad of around 40-45 women, now it’s around the 60 mark.”
Cheltenham Tigers RFC were founded in 1889 with their Ladies XV squad introduced in 1990. Like many other grass roots clubs, it wasn’t all plain sailing. In the last couple of years, the Tigers’ progression of women’s rugby has had a steady increase, with Scottish sports presenter Jill Douglas as women’s president.
Wilson looks back at the backlash of the coronavirus pandemic and actually believes that it’s had a positive effect on this season. With athletes re-lighting their spark and passion for the sport they love most: “this year we have seen a huge jump and I think it’s mainly down to the two years of COVID.”
But for now, the coaches Wilson, Dan Morris, Bee Mocellin, Henry Walker, Charlie Beckett and Kingsley Morgans focus on getting “the small bits of detail” right. Currently, their main priority is to keep up the team’s cardiovascular fitness to consistently apply pressure against their opposition in their remaining fixtures and play-offs.
The Championship side are way out in front with 87 points, while the second’s team are in the lead with 70 points and two games to play. “We planned it to be a squad of around 40-45 women, now it’s around the 60 mark” which now reflects how far the club have come since the days of struggling numbers on cold winter evenings.
“Our aim was to get to mid table for the second team, so to get promoted is above and beyond our expectation.” For a club that is building from strength to strength, the future looks bright for next season.