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Wales Online
Wales Online
Katie Sands

Wales boss signs new three-year contract and 17 more players turn pro for World Cup in major WRU announcement

Wales Women head coach Ioan Cunningham has signed a long-term contract to stay on for the Rugby World Cup in 2025 as more professional players have been added to the ranks.

The Welsh Rugby Union has announced that the number of players on full-time professional contracts has more than doubled to boost preparations for this autumn's global showpiece tournament in New Zealand, which has been delayed 12 months due to Covid. Including the dozen women who turned professional for Wales in January, Wales now has 31 players on WRU contracts: 29 full-time and two part-time in total.

Wales' World Cup campaign kicks off against Scotland on October 9, and they will also face hosts New Zealand and Australia in Pool A. Cunningham's side will go into the tournament on the back of their best Six Nations campaign since 2009, after finishing third in this year's championship.

Read more: Ioan Cunningham, the discarded Welsh regional coach now beasting himself alongside his players

Seventeen new full-time deals have been awarded, lasting six months from July to the end of December to take in the World Cup. Eleven of those are for players who have upgraded after previously being handed semi-professional/retainer deals earlier this year: Gwen Crabb, Georgia Evans, Kat Evans, Lleucu George, Cerys Hale, Kelsey Jones, Kerin Lake, Bethan Lewis, Caitlin Lewis, Kayleigh Powell, Niamh Terry and Sisilia Tuipulotu.

Five more players have been awarded their first contracts to go full-time – flanker Alex Callender, props Cara Hope and Caryl Thomas, centre Meg Webb and uncapped lock Liliana Podpadec – while outside-half Robyn Wilkins has taken up a retainer contract alongside her teaching job.

Extra three-month contracts will also be up for grabs to cover the World Cup period, which runs from October 8 to November 12. Wales Women have returned to action to begin pre-season this week as non-contracted players also train full-time with support from their employers, including 63-cap No. 8 and PE teacher Sioned Harries who has been granted special permission by Ysgol Gymraeg Bro Dur in Neath Port Talbot to train full-time from this week as she bids to appear at a fourth World Cup.

The extra investment in women's rugby in Wales follows a similar announcement in Scotland which means a 36-player squad will be able to train full-time over 11 weeks ahead of the World Cup amid a cash injection.

As for the man at the helm, former Scarlets forwards coach and Wales U20s boss Cunningham, 39, has committed to staying in post for another three years up to and including the 2025 Rugby World Cup in England. He had initially been appointed on an interim basis ahead of the autumn 2021 internationals before being installed as the coach to lead Wales Women to October's World Cup, but his tenure has now been extended in a major boost for the set-up. He has been credited with reinstalling belief in the morale-depleted Wales squad he inherited and transforming their environment in just six weeks last year.

There had been reports the coach would depart the role after this year's World Cup to link back up with Wales U20s, but he said he was "delighted to stay on".

As for further staffing updates, Ospreys fly-half Stephen Myler comes on board as a kicking coach - to aid an area of Wales' game which came up short in the Six Nations - and former Wales and Wigan forward Ben Flower joins the backroom staff to work on the contact area. Louise Jones has joined the programme as performance psychologist, while Cara Jones has been appointed as assistant physiotherapist.

Much of the wider Wales squad has returned to the WRU's Vale HQ this week to begin a tough pre-season ahead of World Cup warm-ups against Canada on August 27 and England on September 14.

WRU performance director Nigel Walker said: “It’s an exciting time for professional women’s rugby in Wales. The initial investment of contracts made an immediate difference to the standards and results of the side in the TikTok Women’s Six Nations and this further investment in players and staff will help to give Wales the best chance of performing with distinction at the forthcoming Rugby World Cup.

“I’m delighted Ioan has committed to the programme until at least the next Rugby World Cup. He has been central to the success so far, he is highly regarded by both the players and management team and has a vision which we as a Union are more than happy to invest in. It’s vital the players and staff have a robust support system to ensure they are in the best shape physically and mentally for Rugby World Cup and the investment in additional staff is key to this.”

Wales boss Cunningham added: "First things first, I’m delighted with this latest investment in players and staff which will give the players the best opportunity to succeed in October. We are competing against other nations across the world, who are continually raising the bar themselves so it’s vital to keep improving to have a chance of getting ahead of that progression curve.

“It’s been great to speak to the players during this process and hear their passion and drive to achieve as players. We looked at where we needed to strengthen our team and I’m delighted to be able to give so many players this opportunity after they have worked so hard for so many years. We are grateful for the understanding shown by many employers, many of whom have allowed players to take leave from their roles or allowed players to take a sabbatical from their jobs. I’m delighted to stay on with this group. I love working with the players and staff every day and look forward to seeing how far we can go over the next few years, not just with this squad but with the next crop of players coming through too.”

As for the next few months, he added: “The aim over the next few months is to be as fit as possible – both physically and mentally – and prepare for our exciting summer Tests against Canada and England before departing for New Zealand," Cunningham added. "We made a good deal of progress in the Six Nations but we felt we probably had more to give especially in the final game. This next two months gives us the opportunity to go hard and make strides as a full group."

WRU contracted players — full time: Keira Bevan, Alisha Butchers, Alex Callender*, Gwen Crabb*, Georgia Evans*, Kat Evans*, Lleucu George*, Cerys Hale*, Cara Hope*, Natalia John, Hannah Jones, Kelsey Jones*, Jasmine Joyce, Kerin Lake*, Bethan Lewis*, Caitlin Lewis*, Ffion Lewis, Siwan Lillicrap, Lisa Neumann, Carys Phillips, Liliana Podpadec*, Kayleigh Powell*, Gwenllian Pyrs, Donna Rose, Elinor Snowsill, Niamh Terry*, Caryl Thomas*, Sisilia Tuipulotu*, Meg Webb.

Part-time contracts: Abbie Fleming, Robyn Wilkins*.

Additional Wales players in full-time pre-season training programme: Sioned Harries, Eloise Hayward, Emma Hennessy, Manon Johnes, Lowri Norkett, Gemma Rowland, Jenni Scoble, Scarlett Thomas-Thompson, Carys Williams.

*Newly-awarded contracts, either full-time or retainer.

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