Giselle Mather forced out of her coaching ‘comfort zone’ due to COVID-19

The Wasps Ladies director of rugby talks to World Rugby about coaching in a pandemic and watching four of her former charges playing at Rugby World Cup 2019.

It would be fair to say that Giselle Mather has seen it, done it and got several t-shirts during an illustrious career in rugby, but she admits she has been tested like never before by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Mather, a Rugby World Cup-winner with England in 1994, is currently in her second spell coaching Wasps Ladies, having led the club to back-to-back Premiership titles in 2003 and 2004.

Her CV also includes a stint at Teddington, who she coached on a 63-game unbeaten run, an historic match in charge of the first Women’s Barbarians side, and a decade working with the Elite Player Development Groups at London Irish. 

Seven of those 10 years at the Exiles between 2005-15 were spent heading up the club’s AASE programme, at a time when Alex Corbisiero, Joe Cokanasiga, Jonathan Joseph, Tom Homer, Dave Sisi, Marcus and Anthony Watson were making their way through the club’s junior ranks.

But Mather has been forced to adapt as she has faced the challenge of guiding a squad of amateur players through lockdown and, more recently, back onto the training pitch.

“I’ve been so out of my comfort zone in so many different ways. The amount of variables as a director of rugby that this period has given me, I’ve never known anything like it,” Mather told World Rugby.

“The amount of decisions that the government has to make and then my governing body has to make before I’m allowed to even make a decision, that’s been really challenging because my natural default is [to] listen, make a decision and then all my energy goes into making that decision work. 

“I’ve not been able to do that. I have to have a plan A, plan B, plan C and plan D cooking at the same time, and that’s an interesting dynamic.”

Staying connected during lockdown

When the United Kingdom was forced into lockdown earlier this year, Mather was understandably concerned about the impact it would have on her squad.

In a normal season, Wasps Ladies train on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and play on the weekend, so the director of rugby decided to keep those times locked into the players’ diaries.

Thanks to video conferencing the squad was able to keep in touch, take part in quizzes and on one call players and coaches even contested a cooking competition against each other.

“We sent challenges out every single week,” Mather explained. “Not compulsory, nobody was under pressure to do them but loads of athletes did them. 

“And as a result, a) I got to know my players in a different way, which always is massively helpful as a coach, b) I think we’re very, very connected as a group now, in a much deeper way than before, and c) when we got back together everybody’s really, really happy to be back because they’ve stayed connected.”

Premier 15s clubs were given the green light to return to ‘stage one’ training at the end of July, and as the women’s game in England edges towards a restart, Mather will continue to use methods learned in lockdown.

She has been enrolled on the World Rugby Virtual High Performance Academy, and has used video conferencing technology not only to connect with players but to take part in, and lead, webinars around the world.

Going forward, Mather is keen to use such technology to streamline the way in which Wasps Ladies analyse performance. “I will be able now in a Monday day to connect with umpteen players about their performance at the weekend, without having to be in the same building as them,” she said.

“Fifteen minutes with them in their lunch break about how they performed would be awesome and has completely changed how I think we’ll be able to communicate with players around performance, which is fantastic for us.”

‘Hard work will get you there in the end’

At Wasps, Mather currently works with two young female coaches, Laura-Jane Lewis and Laurissa Robson. Does she feel a responsibility to help young women on their coaching journey?

“As I’ve said before I don’t necessarily feel that you have to give the job to the female. The female still has to be the best person for the job,” Mather said. 

“But you can prepare females to be the best person for the job. So, the people that work around us, with us, are the people that we’re preparing to be the next ones. 

“LJ Lewis is a Level 4 coach who I work with, she’s amazing and she got the job as our forwards coach completely and utterly on merit. She’s fantastic and has fabulous relationships with the athletes, is thinking about it all the time, is challenging them, challenging me, which is great. 

“She is without question the best person for the job, and there are a lot of women now who are showing that our gender is irrelevant to whether or not we can coach the game.”

Mather’s own coaching break with London Irish came when she met Toby Booth on an RFU Level 3 coaching course. Fast forward a decade and a half, and she was watching on as four of her academy graduates competed at Rugby World Cup 2019.

Dave Sisi, the first player to join Mather’s AASE programme, represented Italy in Japan, while Cokanasiga, Joseph and Anthony Watson were all included in Eddie Jones’ England squad — the latter two appearing in the final defeat to South Africa.

“To have had a small part in their jigsaw, you’re hugely proud to see them realise their dreams and you look back and you think, yeah, I always thought that player could do something,” Mather explained. 

“To watch how much effort, time, work that they’ve put into their journeys, to see them on the biggest stage of all, you feel proud. You feel so pleased for them, and I’m a big believer that hard work will get you there in the end and you’ve got to be resilient over the hurdles that come in the way. 

“And I obviously know with several of those the different types of hurdles they had when they were younger. What potentially could have sidelined or derailed them from the path that they were on, and how they fought various things.”

Mather, too, has proved adept at facing down challenges and scaling the hurdles placed in her way by a global pandemic.

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