SCOTTISH Rugby is to offer at least 30 contracts to its leading female players after this year’s World Cup as part of a new four-year strategy to grow the women’s and girls’ game. Investment in that side of the sport as a whole will increase by £2.5million next year (2022-23) to just over £4m, it is planned to set up two semi-professional sides and three new regional training centres, and fresh targets have been set for the national women’s team on everything from attendance at home games to performance in leading tournaments.

Rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach to contracts, the governing body will offer players a variety of contractual options, recognising that some will not want to give up their careers elsewhere. Forwards Jade Konkel, Sarah Bonar and Rachel Malcolm, for example, are all key members of head coach Bryan Easson’s squad, but have jobs away from the game. Nonetheless, the agreement of such a large number of contracts will ensure that the national team is closer than it has ever been to full-time professional status - and go some way to answering a groundswell of voices demanding more support for the women’s game.

Gemma Fay, the head of women’s and girls’ rugby at Murrayfield, declined to detail the precise amounts that will be on offer. But she insisted that salaries would be competitive, allowing players - if they so choose - to do without day jobs. 

“I see it as a choice if they want to do that,” she said. “But we’ve got 31-year-olds within our team who for the past 12, 13 years have worked hard to create a career, and they may decide not just ‘I’m probably only going to play rugby for another couple of years’ but ‘I might want to have a family as well, and that might be the end of my career’.

“So how we work with that individual if they are in the plans is going to be different from maybe a 19-, 20-year-old who thinks ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m going to do’. So we have a range - I’ve put it in the budget and the board have accepted it. But within that, if you choose to live off that you can, and that’s not scraping by.

“We’re not going to come out with those values yet. We’ve spoken to the players about this, and we said to them within the next couple of months, before we go to the World Cup, we’ll discuss what that looks like.

“But what we have done is a benchmarking exercise behind the scenes around what other unions are looking to do or are doing, what UK Sport is doing in terms of what they pay. I would say we’re competitive with that.” 

Konkel, who is now a London firefighter and plays for Harlequins, was Scotland’s first female professional when she agreed a full-time deal in 2016. She was later joined by Chloe Rollie and Lisa Thomson, and the number of contracted players continued to grow after that to the point where the members of Easson’s squad all have support packages to help them prepare for the World Cup.

The new strategy will run from this year to 2026, and, although precise figures have not been announced, it is expected that the budget for subsequent years will be at least as high as the £4.1m in year one. It has yet to be explained whether the increase will be part of an overall expansion in Scottish Rugby’s finances or whether other parts of the sport may have to undergo belt-tightening exercises as a consequence.

The aim of establishing two semi-professional teams has been an unofficial ambition of the governing body’s for some time, but there are as yet no details about what the teams might be called, where they would be based, or who they would play against. While participation in the English Premiership might be seen as ideal - and could be a means of attracting back some of the Scotland players who currently turn out for clubs in that league - other possibilities include cross-border fixtures against Welsh sides or, more remotely, participation in a future women’s URC.

“We are not closing the door on any opportunities,” Fay added. “I know the RFU will publish their expressions of interest for the next batch of the Premier XVs which I believe is coming out in June. 

“The ambition is to have two sides and to have these in the first half of this strategy. What we don’t want to do is contract players who then have no environment to play in.”

Key targets for Scotland include a top-four finish by the 2024 Six Nations and a top-eight finish at the World Cup the following year. It is also hoped that crowds at home games will increase to 7,000 from their current level of being 3,000 and 5,000.