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Wales Online
Wales Online
Katie Sands

Wales announce new rugby competition with Scotland and Ireland in bid to fix glaring problem

Wales, Scotland and Ireland have joined forces to create a new women's rugby competition in a bid to bridge the gap between domestic and international rugby.

The Celtic Cup competition will be piloted across January and February to offer a high-performance tournament window ahead of the 2023 Women's Six Nations kicking off in March.

Bridging the gap between international and grassroots women's rugby in Wales has been an issue for some time, with every single one of Wales' 32-player squad for the Women's Rugby World Cup in the autumn plying their club trade in England's Premier 15s competition - each travelling across the border to play the most meaningful, high-quality club rugby that is available to them in between international campaigns.

Since Nigel Walker's appointment as Welsh Rugby Union performance director more than a year ago, it has been his ambition to eventually provide a comparable club rugby option on home soil to complete a standalone pathway, and this fresh announcement is a step in the right direction.

Each union will enter one team for the inaugural tournament: a WRU Development XV from Wales, The Thistles from Scotland and a Combined Provinces XV from Ireland. Each side will play two games at home and two away. The ambition is for each union to enter two sides in 2024, with reports in Ireland saying each union hopes to enter four teams within five seasons.

Wales will be represented by a WRU Development XV led by Wales forwards coach Mike Hill and assisted by WRU lead female pathway coach Liza Burgess and Rhys Pritchard. Wales' squad will feature a mix of up-and-coming talents, potentially from the re-established U20s and U18s cohorts, and club players as developing Wales' strength in depth becomes a bigger priority ahead of the 2025 World Cup. Wales internationals who are returning from injury or who could benefit from game time could also feature.

WRU performance director Walker said: “We are very excited by this new opportunity to develop players on the female performance pathway. This is very much a starting point with one team per country in this pilot year but the training programme and matches will provide an invaluable experience for Welsh players with ambitions to play international rugby to improve and test themselves in a performance environment.”

Asked post-World Cup if there were plans for senior women's teams at Wales' four regions to resume playing, Walker hinted that teams won't necessarily follow the men's regional structure in future. "It’s areas we’re talking about," he said. "Whether we’ll be along strict, regional lines remains to be seen. We know that we need to establish teams below the national team."

Fixture details with locations and kick-off times are set to be fully confirmed by the respective home unions in due course.

In direct contrast to the WRU's 60-cap rule for the Wales men's team, whereby players are prevented from playing their club rugby outside Wales unless they have 60 or more caps, it has long been widely accepted that playing in England's top women's competition — the RFU-run Allianz Premier 15s, which is almost entirely made up of clubs affiliated to a men's Premiership side — has offered Wales Women players the best preparation possible in between international campaigns.

With Ireland and Scotland in similar positions, the three unions have joined together in a bid to create their own competition which will aid the future development of women's rugby. Pathway opportunities have also been re-introduced in Wales, with an U18s squad established for a rugby festival in March and April this year and an U20s team also being established.

Walker previously said: "We know we need to have an option in Wales, or options in Wales, which are as attractive or almost as attractive as going over the bridge. We know we need to do that if we’re going to build something sustainable. It doesn’t mean there won’t be any Welsh female players playing across the border but we need to have an option here in Wales."

Celtic Challenge fixtures:

  • The Thistles v WRU Developmment XV, Saturday 21, Sunday 22 January, 2023 - location TBC
  • WRU Development XV v Combined Provinces XV, Sunday, January 29, 2023 - Cardiff Arms Park
  • Combined Provinces XV v The Thistles, Saturday, February 4, 2023 - Kingspan Stadium, Belfast
  • WRU Development XV v The Thistles, Saturday, February 11, 2023 - Cardiff Arms Park
  • Combined Provinces XV v WRU Development XV, Saturday, February 18, 2023 - Kingspan Stadium, Belfast
  • The Thistles v Combined Provinces XV, Saturday, February 25, 2023 - location TBC
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