With details around WXV - the new three-tiered global competition which is set to start in October - announced last week, it provided further proof that women's rugby is continuing to take strides in the right direction.
The record-breaking crowd at Twickenham for the Red Roses' recent Six Nations Grand Slam decider also highlights this but when you strip things back to the domestic level of the sport in England, the decision to grant Sale Sharks Women a conditional offer that will allow them to compete in the Allianz Premier 15s for the 2023-24 season can be seen as another major plus point for growing the game.
Earlier this year, it was strongly recommended by the RFU and Women’s Premier 15 Ltd (WP15) that a greater geographical spread should be provided in the league despite Sale's initial application being rejected in December 2022.
Now, Sale Sharks Women will be able to continue to provide northern representation in the AP15s, news which was met with both delight and relief by the club's back-row, Vicky E Irwin.
Irwin has been an integral member of the Sharks for eight years. Before joining the playing staff when the club was formed in 2020, she was already part of the Sale Sharks Foundation and was appointed as the club’s Brand and Community Manager in 2022.
????. ??????. ????.— Sale Sharks ?? (@SaleSharksRugby) March 17, 2023
We're absolutely delighted to announce that - with the help of your incredible support - @SaleSharksWomen have met the conditions of their offer to play in next season’s top flight.
Thank you, #SharksFam! This is just the beginning.#NorthernRugbyMatters
Crucially, she was also involved in the bidding process to secure Sale’s spot in the AP15s for next season, and tells TRU she found out before everyone else at the club which was 'difficult.'
"I was asked questions by many, many teammates" she begins. "It was really difficult for me personally because I’d be working and playing for the club. Not being able to answer questions honestly was hard and a bit crazy.
"I think for me, the emotions when you hear the news that some of your friends are going to have to leave because of the first initial thoughts, that was really tough to deal with."
"Sale owner, Michelle Orange, has had a huge influence on the club, though," Irwin continues. "She created change. The interviews she gives and the passion she gives off, she knows how important us being in the Premiership is for the young children that are playing at grassroots clubs.
"You have to see it to be it. From next season, we will represent the whole of the North. We’ve just had someone retire recently from the North, who’s the most capped [England] player (Sarah Hunter) so it is massively important for us to keep representing."
Back in February, Sale launched the ‘Northern Rugby Matters’ campaign in a bid to increase awareness and celebrate rugby in the region, and also raise important funding for Sale Sharks Women.
Among the conditions outlined for Sale to be in the Allianz Premier 15s is a requirement for the women’s team to be financially sustainable and independent of owner funding. Irwin stresses the importance of the campaign and how it's helped thus far: "I was talking to Will Cliff in the bar one evening and he’s got two young girls.
"He said if we don’t have a team at the club, where do my girls play? Where do we equip girls to play rugby? 'Northern Rugby Matters' is about how we work together as a club and make it a game for all. We sometimes get lost up here."
Attributed to that could be the fact Manchester is a very football-dominated area in both the men and women’s game. When asked how much of a task it is to get girls involved in rugby, Irwin says she is aware of the challenge her club faces on a regular basis: “We know rugby is the second sport in the area. We have to compete with four of the biggest teams in the world but we have 107 rugby clubs in the North-West. Sixty-five actively engage with us.
"The question is how do we get the rest to do that? We have to grow rugby. If we do not produce the next talent of future Sharks, where are we getting them from? Where’s our sustainability? Where’s the long-term plan and vision for rugby in general? As women, we’re newer so have a harder task.
"We don’t have the same sense of pride in the women’s game. We have open access and need more crowds to watch the women to grow the game. We are still fighting to showcase rugby at the highest level."
This isn’t about me. It’s probably not even about us on the pitch.— Vicky Irwin (@vickyeirwin) February 15, 2023
It’s about all those wee girls in the North having somewhere to make a dream about.
It’s about seeing us & thinking they will be there one day.
And for them to do that, we need you!#NorthernRugbyMatters pic.twitter.com/8zYDH0MBZA
While Irwin's hard work to promote the club off the pitch continues, on the field, Sale currently sit 7th in the Allianz Premier 15s table, having won five out of their 14 games so far this season.
After a break in the campaign due to the TikTok Women’s Six Nations, Sale host Bristol Bears Women on May 13th and Irwin is pleased with the progress her team have made so far after finishing ninth in their previous two seasons.
"For me, we’ve had our best season yet. We know we are at a disadvantage because we don’t have one single Red Roses player in our squad. I would say we probably have the best training facilities in the league, though. We just need someone to take a punt and come up here."
The passion to keep growing the game can arguably be encapsulated by Irwin and while strides are being taken, she knows - with the backing of campaigns such as 'Northern Rugby Matters' - the hard work can continue.