It has been a whirlwind few months for Women’s Rugby World Cup winner Alex Matthews.
Having featured in the triumphant Red Rose squad, the Hartpury College product is now a fully-fledged professional rugby player after being awarded one of 20 full-time deals handed out by the Rugby Football Union (RFU).
This full-time deal sees Matthews become a part of the professional England Women’s Sevens squad bidding to qualify for the Rio Olympics in 2016.
The team will compete in the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series circuit this year as they look to qualify for Great Britain who will compete in the Games in less than two years’ time.
The introduction of professional contracts also means Matthews and her team-mates can train five days a week at Twickenham and Surrey Sports Park in Guildford, where they will receive strength and conditioning, medical, nutritional, lifestyle and psychological support.
All of the contracted players will still be eligible to play international 15-a-side fixtures and Premiership rugby, but the inclusion of Sevens in the Olympics for the first time has played a major role in the RFU’s decision to move the women’s game into the professional ranks.
And for 21-year-old Matthews, the professional contract capped an extraordinary summer.
She said: “When I look back and realise that I’m a World Cup winner, it’s all a bit surreal! It seems so long ago now, but it was a fantastic squad and I feel so lucky to have been a part of it.
“To follow that success with earning a professional contract is a dream come true. I remember being at school and wanting to be a rugby player so to realise that dream is something extremely special.”
England are following in the footsteps of numerous countries who already have professional women’s sevens squads. Netherlands were the first in 2011, and since then, further countries have followed suit, with Canada – beaten by England in the World Cup final – among those nations. Back row Matthews added: “The professional contracts are a massive step forward in the women’s game and sport in general. Women’s rugby is becoming more and more popular and it will only continue to grow. For those players in the squad, it benefits us massively as we can now achieve the perfect preparation for our fixtures and tournaments.”
After joining Hartpury College in 2009, Matthews’ career went from strength to strength. She studied A-levels while being a part of the much-vaunted AASE (Advanced Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence) Women’s Rugby programme, where she was coached by current England team-mate Danielle Waterman.
She said: “I loved my time at Hartpury and I learned so much during my time there. The training was great and it aided my game massively, as I could see all of the strength work paying off. The biggest thing for me though, was being able to combine my studies with training. It helped me get into a routine and balance all the parts of my life, which has definitely helped me.”.”
After leaving in 2011, Matthews became the first ever international player to have come through the ranks of Hartpury, when she and fellow Hartpury player Ceri Large made their debuts for England against France in the same year.
And many current Hartpury students are looking to emulate her success, with Sydney Gregson, Abbie Brown and Megan Jones all among those called up to the England Elite Playing Squad that was announced two weeks ago.
Matthews added: “I’m not surprised that more girls from Hartpury are being called up to the England squads. The facilities and training they receive are second to none and their call-ups are proof of that.
“Danielle (Waterman) mentioned that there were some players coming through to keep an eye on and she seems to be right! Hopefully they will use this opportunity to push on and break into the team.”
The focus now for Matthews and her England team-mates is the IRB Women's Sevens World Series circuit, which kicks off in Dubai on December 4th. The World Series gives leading female rugby players across six continents the chance to experience elite level, high performance Sevens competition in venues around the world.
For Great Britain to be represented in Rio, England will need to ensure a top four finish at the end of the series this season, with the sixth and final stage being held in the Netherlands in May 2015. Matthews is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge but insists it is one the squad is relishing.
She said: “Sevens is a completely new experience for me as I only played it for the first time last year. It’s a really exciting game, and I’m looking forward to the whole series. I’m confident that we can secure qualification to the Olympics; that’s the next step for us all.”
Picture from rugbymatters.net