In line with the ‘developing inspirational leadership’ strand of its 2017-25 Women in Rugby strategic plan, World Rugby is committed to supporting the development of female coaches in the sport and has set an ambitious target of a minimum of 40 per cent of all coaches at RWC 2025 to be women.
The coach interns, profiled below, will be fully embedded into each competing RWC 2021 national coaching team, where they will gain meaningful professional development opportunities and experience in a high-performance sporting environment, leading up to and during the tournament.
Alumni of the programme include Whitney Hansen, who is now a full-time member of the Black Ferns coaching set-up, Alana Thomas (Fiji), Sophie Spencer (Wales) and Céline Allainmat (France).
INGE VISSER (AUSTRALIA)
Inge Visser had never watched or heard of rugby until aged 19 a friend told her to come to training at the beach, she played in the Beach Rugby Festival in Ameland – the Dutch island on which she grew up – and duly caught the eye of the Netherlands’ head coach.
With only two seasons of rugby behind her, she was selected for the Dutch side and played at the Hong Kong Sevens from 2005-08. She then went backpacking around Australia – where she played for the Warringah Ratettes – and returned home with a desire to step up her involvement in rugby.
Visser was part of the Netherlands squad that stunned Australia in the semi-finals of the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Challenge Cup in London in 2012, before she went on to play in the inaugural HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.
After Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 in Russia, Visser decided to move back to Australia, where she played for NSW Rugby. She was head coach of the University of New England (UNE) Rugby Lions in 2019 and has also set up a sevens academy for talented players on the Central Coast above Sydney and satellite programmes in rural New South Wales.
Last year she was accepted onto the inaugural Women’s Sport Leadership Academy for High Performance Coaches.
MARIA GALLO (CANADA)
Born in La Plata, Argentina, Mario Gallo emigrated to Canada in 1986 as a youngster and started playing rugby in Ontario once she finished high school. Like many North American rugby players, the hard-running winger was a talented all-round athlete who played football (soccer) before competing in bobsleigh to a high level during her rugby career.
She made her debut against the USA in 1999, and by the time she retired from international rugby in 2010 at the age of 32, after 11 years at the top, Gallo had amassed 55 caps in 15s and seven in sevens. At Rugby World Cup 2006 she gained notoriety for scoring five tries against Spain in a 79-0 win.
Gallo has since combined coaching with her full-time job as associate professor of teaching in the School of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia. She is currently assistant coach of the Canada women’s national team.
LAILANIE BURNES (FIJI)
A trail-blazing presence in Fijian women’s rugby, Lailanie Burnes founded the country’s first ever women’s rugby club, Nadi Blazers in 2012.
Burnes, whose mother Nanise is from Nairai in the Lomaiviti Islands, relocated to Nadi from Australia in 2008.
She had grown up around the game but first picked up an oval ball in high school before playing club and representative rugby alongside her sister, Leonie.
When Burnes first moved to Fiji she trained with a men’s club in Namaka, before deciding to set up the Nadi Blazers with her late aunt, Pat.
The club has gone on to produce a number of Fijiana sevens and 15s players, including Burnes, who captained her country and was part of the team that secured their historic qualification for Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022.
She has since hung up her boots but had already started planning for a life in coaching while playing, completing the Level 3 Coaching Award in March 2020.
Burnes will get the opportunity to put those lessons into practice on the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme and has high hopes for the Fijiana in New Zealand.
“It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be a challenge but bring it on!” she said.
“Every team including Fiji is going into RWC to win. If you don’t have that mindset, you shouldn’t be there.”
MICHELA TONDINELLI (ITALY)
Michela Tondinelli will head to New Zealand for Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, 31 years after she was involved in the first ever women’s tournament as a player.
Tondinelli began playing rugby when she was just six years old, having accompanied her older brother to his first training session.
Asked to join in by the coach, she became hooked and only 10 years later she would start all four of the Azzurre’s matches in South Wales as they appeared in the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup.
It was the first of three trips to Rugby World Cup. Tondinelli scored 29 points at RWC 1998, including 19 in a 51-7 defeat of Russia, and made her final tournament appearance during the 11th-place play-off against Kazakhstan four years later.
Tondinelli’s test career lasted until 2013 when she eventually hung up her boots following a 38-7 defeat to Spain during RWC 2014 qualifying.
By then she had already started coaching, working with children before making her way through the ranks. She is keen to make the most of her opportunity on the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme.
“I hope to learn as much as possible from this programme,” Tondinelli said. “Comparing myself with the other coaches and different rugby cultures will be fantastic.”
AYA NAKAJIMA (JAPAN)
Aya Nakajima did not pick up a rugby ball until she was 23, joining the Japan women’s programme in the same year, 2009, that sevens became an Olympic sport.
Her talent in the shortened format was quickly recognised and seven years later she was part of the Sakura Sevens squad that appeared at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
However, Nakajima had long developed a love affair with 15s and made her test debut for Japan during Rugby World Cup 2014 qualification.
That campaign was unsuccessful but three years later Nakajima was part of the team that beat Fiji and Hong Kong to book their place at RWC 2017.
Second-row Nakajima appeared in four matches at the tournament, starting against Australia and Italy as Japan finished 11th.
Following the tournament in Ireland, Nakajima enjoyed short playing spells in Australia and New Zealand as she learned from rugby-playing cultures outside of Japan.
Although still playing at club level, Nakajima hung up her boots as an international and was working as Japan’s team manager before being accepted onto the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme.
A lineout “nerd”, the set-piece will be Nakajima’s primary area of responsibility on the road to New Zealand.
CLAIRE CRUIKSHANK (SCOTLAND)
Growing up in the Scottish borders, Claire Cruikshank would throw a rugby ball around in the garden with her younger brother, but it was not until she started university in Newcastle that she got the opportunity to play the game competitively.
A gifted hockey player, Cruikshank chose to concentrate on rugby when the demands on her time became too much to continue both.
It proved a fruitful decision as she went on to win five caps for Scotland between 2001-06, before an ACL injury picked up during a training session at Rugby World Cup 2006 ended her playing career.
During her rehabilitation from that knee injury, Cruikshank tried her hand at coaching for the first time, helping the junior teams at her club, Murrayfield Wanderers.
On the eve of the 2011-12 academic year, Cruikshank agreed to coach University of Edinburgh Ladies on a temporary basis.
More than a decade later, having guided the team to British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Championship success in 2017, and the final in both 2020 and 2022, she is now employed full-time as Head of Performance Women’s Rugby.
Three years ago, Cruikshank also agreed to coach Sweden women on a voluntary basis. Working alongside Rugby World Cup winner, Tamara Taylor, she led the team to the Rugby Europe Women’s Trophy title earlier this year.
LAURIAN JOHANNES-HAUPT (SOUTH AFRICA)
Laurian Johannes-Haupt became the first female to take charge of a South African national team when she was appointed as the Women’s U20 coach last May. She earned the historic post following five years working in the Western Province age-grade structures, and subsequently led the team into its first matches for six years.
It was the latest step on a rugby journey that began at the University of the Western Cape, following a little subterfuge. Having told her parents she had taken up badminton at university, she asked her father to buy a pair of rugby boots for a ‘friend’ who didn’t exist.
Her father soon got over the shock of seeing her playing rugby, however, and she has repaid her family’s support. The prop represented South Africa at Rugby World Cup 2010, and would become the country’s most-capped female provincial player, turning out more than 50 times for Western Province.
Johannes-Haupt has also coached Western Province’s senior women’s team since 2018, the first year in an assistant coach capacity before taking over as head coach in 2019.
KATE DALEY (USA)
Kate Daley first picked up a rugby ball at high school and impressed enough to be selected for the USA U19 squad in her senior year. She subsequently played at Penn State University where, towards the end of her college career, she was selected for a USA U23 tour of New Zealand that proved to be a springboard.
The number eight made her test debut against Canada in January 2010 and although she missed out on a place in the USA squad for that year’s Rugby World Cup in England, she established herself in the side a year later. Daley captained the Women’s Eagles at RWC 2014, and by the time of her final test — against France in November 2016 — had earned 22 caps.
Having started her coaching journey at the University of Notre Dame, Daley returned to Penn State in order to rehab a broken leg suffered during RWC 2014. She began coaching the women’s team, and subsequently joined USA Rugby as an assistant coach.
COACHING INTERNSHIP ALUMNI
ALANA THOMAS (FIJI)
A former Wallaroo, who played at Rugby World Cup 2006, Alana Thomas began working towards a career in coaching when she mentored her younger team-mates. Thomas played for the Wallaroos from 2006-08 and was named the NSW Waratahs Player of the Year in 2007 as well as Player of the National Tournament.
While taking time out due to injury, Thomas started assisting in coaching her local team. In 2015, Thomas attended a Rugby Australia development programme, which made her realise that she wanted to take her coaching further, and she became an emerging players’ coach with Melbourne Rebels Women.
Thomas grasped that opportunity and 20 months later was promoted to the role of head coach. In 2017 she won the Rugby Australia Community Coach of the Year Award and the following year was named the head coach of the Melbourne Rebels team for the inaugural Super W competition.
The 38-year-old then returned to the Wallaroos set-up as an assistant to Australia A coach Moana Virtue at the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship 2019.
Earlier in the same year, Thomas had attended the World Rugby Women’s High Performance Academy in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The New South Wales native, who hails from Glen Innes, also enrolled in the virtual High Performance Academy in May.
Thomas will work as a defence and skills coach with the Fijiana.
CÉLINE ALLAINMAT (FRANCE)
A full-back/winger with a keen eye for the try-line, Céline Allainmat made her debut for Les Bleues against Wales in February 2003 and played in two Rugby World Cups in 15s, in 2006 – where she earned a bronze medal – and 2010, as well as the inaugural tournament in 2009 for sevens, her preferred format of the game. Unfortunately, an injury in March 2015 proved to be career-ending, preventing her from making France’s team for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Inspired by her rugby-playing father, Allainmat never dreamt she would go on to win 40 caps for Les Bleues when she first became actively involved in the sport, aged 14, at the local Sporting Club Saint Pierre du Mont. This was followed by eight years at Pachys d’Herm, before she enjoyed a one-season stay at Clifton RFC in England, which exposed her to a higher level of rugby. When Allainmat returned to France, she spent three seasons at Bayonne before finishing off at Stade Rennais, where she moved into coaching and now holds the role of both fitness coach and backs coach for the women’s team. She has also worked as fitness coach to the France U20 women’s team in recent years.
SOPHIE SPENCE (WALES)
The opportunity to join the Wales coaching staff as part of the Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching Internship Programme has arrived faster than Sophie Spence could have expected.
Following the end of her playing career in 2018, Spence moved to Wales with her wife, Anwen where she opened a coffee shop and began coaching the forwards at men’s National League Division 1 West club, Penclawdd.
She has long held a desire to gravitate into coaching, however, having earned a BASc in Sports and Exercise Coaching Science, a Masters in Sport Psychology and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. Earlier this year, she began a Level 3 coaching course with the Welsh Rugby Union.
Spence will bring a wealth of experience to the Wales set-up. She first picked up a rugby ball as a 21-year-old at Teesside University and progressed via Darlington and DMP Sharks to Old Belvedere, Leinster and full Ireland honours.
The 33-year-old played 40 tests for Ireland and appeared at two Rugby World Cups – including 2014 when Ireland stunned New Zealand in the pool stage – and one Rugby World Cup Sevens. Spence also represented the Barbarians alongside Wales skills coach Rachel Taylor.
WHITNEY HANSEN (NEW ZEALAND)
Earning her place on the Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching Internship Programme is the latest step on a coaching journey that began for Whitney Hansen in 2017.
Three years ago, Hansen made the decision to transition into coaching following a playing career in which she made more than 100 appearances for the University of Canterbury and represented Canterbury in the Farah Palmer Cup.
Her coaching career also began at the University of Canterbury, while she was also soon recruited to work with Canterbury’s U18 girls’ team.
In the last two years, Hansen has been able to gain some international experience. In 2019, she was part of the Black Ferns Development XV coaching panel that travelled to Fiji for the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship. She has also been part of the New Zealand Barbarians coaching team that prepared for matches against the Black Ferns in 2019 and 2020.
Having been selected as one of two female rugby coaches on High Performance Sport NZ’s Te Hāpaitanga programme, Hansen also worked with Canterbury as an assistant coach during the Farah Palmer Cup 2020 season.
AMY TURNER (ENGLAND)
The charismatic Amy Turner was part of six Women’s Six Nations Grand Slam-winning squads with England as well as representing her country at two Rugby World Cups (2006 and 2010) and Rugby World Cup Sevens 2009. Her versatility saw her capped in three different positions for the Red Roses – at hooker, centre and, predominantly, scrum-half – in an international career that spanned seven years from 2005-12. She made her England debut as a replacement against Wales in Cardiff and went on to earn 59 caps.
Raised in south-west London, Turner played club rugby for Rosslyn Park, Harlequins, Richmond and Wasps, while also serving as a frontline officer in the Metropolitan Police. On retiring from playing, Turner was appointed assistant coach of the Harlequins Ladies before landing the position of Professional Pathway Officer (Women) with the Rugby Football Union. It is a role she combines with coaching England Women’s U20s and Hackney men in London 2 North West.