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Writing Chapter Two: Infrastructure

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This is the third part of a multi-part series on the evolution of Leicester Tigers Women from Year 1 to Year 2 as they prepare for their first season in Premiership Women's Rugby. This is the writing of a new history. You can read Part 1: The Squad herePart 2: The Coaches here and check out our recently announced first ever fixtures in Premiership Women's rugby here. 

“I think the biggest challenges are going to rugby clubs and the toilets all being male, changing rooms all being male.”

That was Ofure Ugiagbetalking on International Women’s Day, regarding the challenges the game still faces and barriers to entry for young girls.

Churchy Knight and Jade Jones expressed a similar sentiment about accessibility and, although they are beginning to be addressed, the issues are still prevalent at all levels of the game.

Despite the monumental signings of established internationals and incredible breadth across the club’s coaching team ahead of the debut Premiership campaign, it's the club's infrastructure that has seen the biggest shift in the last 12 months. 

This area has overseen the leasing and ongoing redevelopment of Oaks Park, a 4-acre site that has allowed the club to become a world leader by providing the women's team a unique space to call their own. This article will discuss exactly what this will mean not just for the squad but for the women’s programme at Leicester Tigers.

Credit must certainly go to the management team, for their equal parts fierce negotiating in terms of leasing and equipment and the way they have physically been mucking in, unpacking boxes, painting walls and filling skips. However, the foundation for this success lies on the shoulders of our supporters. 

The phenomenal backing of the team, through being one of the now more than 5,000 Season Ticket Holders or player and club sponsorships, has been the biggest and best endorsement the programme could receive, while also further strengthening the viability of the project and just how quickly it can grow as its own entity.

How has the infrastructure for the women’s programme evolved?

It's an area oft forgotten when supporters and pundits discuss any professional sports team and yet it is perhaps just as crucial for success. If your infrastructure isn’t aligned with the needs of the athletes and coaching staff then struggle will inherently arise.

When the genesis of the team was forming, the players were training across, at any one time, four spaces.

Oval Park (the current training ground for the men’s and academy teams) on Tuesday and Manor Road (University of Leicester) or Brooksby College on Thursday, as well as sessions at Performance Partner club Lichfield RFC.

The lack of consistency lead to difficulties for many and, although the team were absolutely brilliant in stepping up and making it work, it simply wasn’t sustainable.

As preparations for life in Premiership Women’s Rugby began, Oaks Park, the former home ground of Oadby Town Football Club, became available for Let. The facility’s prime location, directly across the road from Oval Park, meant it was logistically perfect. 

After some time analysing the facilities, including how to rework much of it for a rugby team, the deal was completed in early 2023 – an initial deal for 10 years, with a purchasing option within. 

Oval Park had always been set up for men’s rugby. The ratio of men’s toilets to women’s toilets, for instance, is enormous. The work it would have undertaken to transform that space would have been enormous.

Oaks Park allowed the women’s team their own space: changing rooms, clubhouse and, of course, toilets.

It might seem superfluous but these elements make a real difference when you’re continuing to build a programme, in the Premiership for the first time, from scratch. 

The side now boast a squad of nearly 50 players, half a dozen coaches, Team Manager, as well as dedicated performance and medical staff. A programme of this magnitude takes up a lot of space and a lot of work.

The way this space has been transformed means it functions not purely for rugby purposes but serves to help the whole squad and support their needs. WiFi has been installed and there are working spaces so full-time professionals and those still completing their studies can complete their work without fear of having to compromise on their training.

Players can undertake extra training sessions and spend more individually focused time in the, soon to be installed, gym. The exciting influx of international players – including Amy Cokayne, Meg Jones, Eva Donaldson, Elis Martin, Francesca McGhie and Evie Wills – has given them a strong base of operation. 

Since moving in, Forwards Coach Luke Stratford has regularly been seen on the wall outside the facility doing early throwing sessions with the hookers.

There’s space for the coaching team to plan sessions and have individual tactical conversations with players. There is a kitchen and bar area that allows for the squad to be fed post-training and to host social events, such as the recent Sponsors BBQ. 

This is just within the clubhouse itself and doesn’t even take into account the new rugby pitch and additional parking space that the facility boasts.

The Tigers Grounds Team are doing a tremendous job and working tirelessly to transform the dry, unused football pitch into an elite rugby field; at present, it is used for skill sessions before strength and conditioning and rugby training is held at Oval Park.

The management team feel it has allowed the long-term strategy to progress faster than originally planned.

Add to that the amazing support of more than 5,000 Season Ticket Holders, which smashed through, beyond and past internal targets, allowed to the get this deal over the line swiftly.

The management team, although willing to be corrected about this, believe this will make Leicester Tigers the only rugby club with dedicated women’s-only facilities (bar, of course, Warriors Women, due to outside circumstances).

Why was this essential?

It comes back to a mantra often repeated internally: when the women’s programme was established, the goal was – unashamedly – to make it the very best in the world.

However, that would be while not taking away anything from the men’s programme and instilling a belief, throughout the Tigers Family, that you shouldn’t have to compromise one for the other to achieve success. 

It is one club, one Leicester Tigers after all.

The addition of Oaks Park has meant that the pressure has been taken off Oval Park in many ways.

It doesn’t have to become accustomed to three separate squads using the facilities ensuring the work done there can have closer attention to detail without the pressure of sharing what is already limited space.

The pitches there currently have to handle men’s, women’s and academy teams, and all grades of local club Oadby Wyggstonians.

The fact the current pitches are in any sort of playable condition, let alone the elite requirements of Premiership outfits, is testament to the exceptional work the grounds team embark on each day at Oval Park, Oaks Park and Mattioli Woods Welford Road.

In the last 12 months, the women’s team have gone from a disparate training operation spread between, at one time, four separate shared locations to, now, a dedicated facility – a space where they can grow and develop as rugby players.

While seen as just bricks and mortar, it is far more and has led to a squad that is happier, carrying fewer burdens in balancing the tumultuous challenges that life throws your way and playing a major part in building a team that is ready to compete in the most elite women’s rugby league in the world.