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Abbie Ward from England has chosen to take the most difficult path to return to the Women’s Six Nations tournament.
Rugby union Sport

Abbie Ward from England has chosen to take the most difficult path to return to the Women’s Six Nations tournament.

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Abbie Ward, a seasoned rugby player, has participated in two Rugby World Cup finals and has been victorious in multiple Six Nations tournaments. She was also among the first Red Roses members to receive a professional contract. After giving birth to her daughter Hallie, Abbie considers playing for her country again to be one of her most significant accomplishments, as it required overcoming numerous challenges.

Ward, who turns 31 on Wednesday, gave birth last July and returned to play for her club, Bristol, in November. She scored in her first game back, a 48-5 win over Sale in the Premiership Women’s Rugby. After the match she said her next goal would be to get back into the England squad which she achieved when the new head coach, John Mitchell, named a training camp in January. She was then included in the team’s 2024 Women’s Six Nations squad and has been selected to start in England’s opening match against Italy on Sunday.

Ward shared that among his 61 caps, wearing an England shirt this time will be one of his most remarkable accomplishments in rugby. Despite playing in World Cup finals, captaining, and winning grand slams, he believes that this has been the most challenging journey towards donning an England shirt. This experience has made him value it even more.

“I’ve come to truly value receiving my first cap after overcoming injuries. However, I had to start from the beginning and earn my spot on a highly competitive team where the level of rugby is exceptional. I will certainly not become complacent and not appreciate it.”

Ward last played for England in the Rugby World Cup final in 2022 where the team lost 34-31 to New Zealand. She says it has been a long wait to “right some wrongs” from that result but says her daughter has been a good distraction. “I think having Hallie and that time away, it gives you perspective,” Ward says.

During the preparations for the Six Nations, Ward and her team have been in the England camp, where Hallie has accompanied her mother. Ward has taken the opportunity to introduce her daughter to her fellow teammates, making her the focal point of their attention. Ward expresses that Hallie thoroughly enjoys being in this environment. In addition to benefiting Hallie, being a part of the England camp is also a great experience for Ward herself as a mother. She feels grateful to have the opportunity to expose her daughter to such a supportive and empowered group of women. Ward believes that growing up in this environment and being surrounded by these amazing role models will have a significant impact on Hallie. She considers herself fortunate to be able to share this experience with her daughter.

Ward was the first contracted England player to give birth during her career and she felt passionately about sharing the journey publicly in order to raise awareness for current and future players. As part of that she is releasing a documentary with ITV called “Abbie Ward: A Bump in the Road”, airing next week, which shows her return to play.

Ward believes that it is crucial to openly discuss the experiences of athletes. She believes that some sports, specifically men’s sports, have not recognized the challenges of balancing a family and a professional sports career. This has led to many athletes retiring prematurely.

“I aimed to shed some light on the subject by posing challenging questions and providing insight for other players. When I initially embarked on this journey, I was unsure of what to expect since no other player in England had gone through it before. My main goal is to ensure that future female players who choose to have families are aware of the potential impact on their career. I also want to emphasize that my personal goal of returning to the game may not be the same for everyone, and it is important to note that the [Rugby Football Union maternity] policy allows for individual choices.”

Abbie Ward and her daughter Hallie

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Ward is currently dedicated to the Six Nations and has returned to the England team to discover that the program has made improvements since her last participation. “There are many new staff members, more than before,” Ward explains. “The overall program has made significant progress in terms of its operation. The players, as well as the team and its depth and talent, have also shown great promise, which is very exciting.”

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England is predicted to win and if they do, it will mark their sixth consecutive year as champions, with France once again being their top contender for the title.

Other countries will prioritize improving their performance and achieving good results. Wales has narrowed the gap between them and France and England in recent years, but they want to see that reflected on the scoreboard after losing against France by 39-14 and against England by 59-3 in the 2023 Six Nations. On the other hand, Scotland achieved consecutive wins in the tournament for the first time in 17 years, and they will strive to continue this progress.

Italy dropped down a bit, placing fifth for the second year in a row. Their goal is to avoid being in the lowest two spots and increase the number of victories they have. Ireland’s newly appointed head coach, Scott Bemand, expressed their aim to come in the top three. In 2023, they were in last place and achieving Bemand’s goal would require a remarkable improvement in their results.

The opening game will feature France hosting Ireland on Saturday, followed by Wales playing against Scotland and the current champions, England, traveling to Italy. Ward will be joined by other players returning to the team, including Zoe Harrison and Emily Scarratt, for their first match. Captain Marlie Packer will also earn her 100th cap. Despite being considered the favorites, the team is focusing on themselves and their game plan rather than outside expectations, according to Ward.

Source: theguardian.com