Inside Worcester Women’s demise: ‘They passed two financial checks, then decide they can’t afford us’

Inside Worcester Women’s demise: ‘They passed two financial checks, then decide they can’t afford us’
‘They passed two financial checks, then decide they can’t afford us’: Inside Worcester Women’s demise

Worcester Warriors Women withdrew from the PWR in October – Shutterstock/Ashley Crowden

Last October, when Worcester Warriors Women abruptly pulled out of Premiership Women’s Rugby, Stef Evans made a promise to herself.

The Canadian front-row had been on a modest retainer contract at Sixways but as she began scrambling around for a new club, she was no longer prepared to play for free.

“I can’t risk blowing my life up continuously just to play rugby,” says Evans, who had been playing in the women’s top flight for five years. “I’m happy to play for net zero. But I promised myself I wouldn’t play for debt anymore.”

Worcester was one of the founding teams in the Premier 15s (rebranded at the start of the season to PWR) and one of the first women’s clubs in the league to pay players, but its owners, Cube International, unexpectedly withdrew its financial support – and a 10-year business plan for the team – a few weeks into the 2023-24 season.

When the Worcester-based business took over at the start of 2023, the optics looked positive. The company’s chairman, Andy Moss, even made the bold prediction that the women’s team could become commercially viable within the next five years. Ten months later, Moss made the “emotionally challenging decision” to withdraw the team from the rebooted Premiership, days before the start of the league.

Four months on from the dark evening when the squad was suddenly brought in from a training session and told the news, Telegraph Sport has brought together five former players who have all been impacted by the club’s demise.

They are all keen to share their stories hoping that this saga never happens again and are demanding greater scrutiny of the business models required to run top-flight women’s teams.

Worcester were originally unsuccessful in their bid to be part of English rugby’s premier women’s competition in December 2022 due to the ongoing uncertainty around the sale of the men’s club. They were readmitted three months after Moss took over and drew up his ambitious business plan.

“They passed two financial checks, walk in on a Monday evening and decide they can’t afford us anymore,” says Siobhan McCarthy, who joined Worcester two seasons ago.

The highly-rated Irish second row is on a three-month trial contract with Gloucester-Hartpury but is yet to rack up any game time this season. “He [Moss] signed up to a 10-year agreement with the PWR and they just said, ‘Yeah, that’s it’.”

Evans, who is nodding in agreement, chips in. “So what is that process [around owner checks] and is it being changed?”

A Rugby Football Union spokesperson said: “Cube International provided the RFU with a business plan that evidenced its ability to fund the Warriors Women’s team. Cube decided to withdraw the team from the league due to changing business priorities, not funding issues. With the men’s team having gone into administration, backing from Cube enabled the Warriors Women’s team to continue operating.”

Moss has been contacted by Telegraph Sport for comment. After the news broke last year, he told the BBC the women’s team was “not financially viable” and “the support just doesn’t exist for it”.

More than half of Worcester’s squad from last season are yet to secure deals at new clubs, including a handful of England Under-20s players.

Laura Keates, a 2014 World Cup winner with England and widely regarded as one of the finest tightheads the English women’s game has produced, is amongst those without a contract.

“We had 23 players that were going to be regularly playing in the Premiership,” says Keates, the frustration palpable in her voice. “Whether or not they then get game time is one of our joint biggest frustrations. The PWR and Rugby Football Union are talking about growing the women’s game, but actually you’ve lost 40-odd players.”

Keates, 35, was rehabbing from a serious knee injury she sustained during the 2022 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand when the club went under. The qualified dentist was able to access a hardship fund through the Rugby Players’ Association but, due to her dentistry foundation year being based at a clinic in Malvern, joining a new club has been problematic.

“It’s been incredibly tough,” says Keates. “I’ve been going back to Worcester a couple of days a week because that’s where our physio has been run. It’s just a bit of a shell of a place.”

Evans’ 90-minute commute to her new club, Leicester Tigers, is modest compared to some of her other former team-mates – winger Vicky Laflin makes a four-and-a-half-hour round trip to Ealing Trailfinders after a “stressful” time trying to find a new club on the eve of the new season.

The former England Under-20 player had been at Sixways for six years and found last-ditch talks with other clubs “stressful”. “You couldn’t really barter or have any negotiation,” says Laflin, who had spent all six years of her elite rugby life at Sixways. “It was like, take what you’re offered and be grateful because all the clubs were full.”

The PWR excluded Worcester players from the £190,000 cap in a bid to incentivise other clubs to accommodate them. Many, however, ended up with voluntary or, in McCarthy’s case, trial contracts. Few are getting paid what they were at Worcester.

Keates, who still harbours ambitions to add to her 62 Red Roses caps, claims better regulation of how much England players can command within the salary cap could have helped.

“Your English internationals get paid reasonably well for England, and then get the top amounts from their clubs,” says Keates. “You might be a Welsh international or Scottish international and Irish international and I’ve heard of them in some teams not being paid anything. We talk about growing the game and everybody getting equal parts but that’s a crazy way of having a league.

“They want to grow women’s English rugby, you have a massively tiered system where some people are being paid a lot and some people are being paid less. How does that allow for equal growth of the game?”

Non-English players, meanwhile, are feeling the squeeze. Sara Moreira, Worcester’s former back row who has been capped by Portugal, took the drastic decision to sign for Sale to preserve her rugby career. She now makes the five-hour trip from Worcester to the northern club three times a week.

“I’m a self-employed tiler,” says Moreira. “Luckily for me, I’m working alongside someone at the moment, but that means I can only work three or four days. The other days are half-days, which just doesn’t make it feasible.

“I wanted to start growing my business on my own but it’s hard to say to someone. ‘I’ll come and tile your house but I can only work Monday, Wednesday and Friday.’ I’ve had to make a lot of changes, which has put me in a financially unstable position.”

As the PWR trundles along a path towards professionalism, Evans, Keates, Laflin, Moreira and McCarthy do not want to share their stories in vain. “That’s the saddest thing about all of this,” says Evans. “It just feels like a lot of people who have spent years of their life playing, working, building this league, their investment – my investment – hasn’t been protected.” History, the group insists, cannot repeat itself.

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