“I’ve won Six Nations Grand Slams, played in a World Cup final, captained England, but never before have I received so many messages as when we announced this news. It’s been unbelievable and heart-warming.”
This was the reaction revealed by Abbie Ward when she told the outside world about her pregnancy last month, alongside husband and Bristol Bears Women’s head coach Dave Ward.
And no wonder. It seems the game, its players and fans are looking for someone like Ward to demonstrate to the rugby world and beyond that you can be a professional athlete (and a world class one at that), and not have to wait until your career is over to have a baby.
Since the announcement, Ward has passionately communicated her determination to become the first contracted England 15s player to return to the top of the game after having a baby.
The last Red Rose to do so was almost a decade ago, when without the support of a professional set up and when training and playing for England whilst working in another job was the norm, Emma Croker returned to win the 2014 World Cup.
Now, in England’s professional era, Ward will be the first to make use of an updated and bespoke RFU maternity and pregnant parent policy announced today and has stated her goal to return to the field as soon as next season.
“When you announce you’re pregnant as a sportswoman, a lot of people get asked whether they’re retiring or stopping because I think for a long time that was what you had to do because there wasn’t the set up or support around to be able to continue being an athlete and a mum at the same time,” said the 29-year-old.
“I wanted to put something out there to say that I am still training every day and working hard. I am still a rugby player, and my ambition is to do this alongside being a mum.”
Excited to announce that we will have a new addition to the Ward family. In the meantime I’ll still be training hard and giving full support to the Red Roses and Bristol Bears. I can’t wait to have my mini-me pitchside next season & show that athletes can be mums too! pic.twitter.com/Oe29iaaU49
— Abbie Ward (@AbbieWard93) January 25, 2023
“When I rang Mids (Simon Middleton, England Women Head Coach) to tell him, the conversation was very rugby orientated and one of the first things I wanted to impress was the fact that I’m coming back.
“I wanted to express that I have had three long-term periods out with injury before; twice I’ve been out for a year and another time for nine months and each time I have come back arguably a better player. In my opinion, there’s no reason this should be any different.
“Also, lots of players talk about becoming parents and how that’s helped them with their careers. I’ve seen it first-hand with Marlie (Packer) who has been very vocal about how Oliver (her son) has brought another dimension to her game. Anyone who’s a parent talks about how their kids are their motivation. So, I wanted to make that clear to Mids and he knows I’m a pretty determined and stubborn person and when I put my mind to something, I’ll do everything I can to make it happen.”
In a normal place of work women tend not to share their news of pregnancy until further down the line, but rugby is a unique sport and a unique work place with Ward keen to make sure everyone in terms of medics and S&C were on the same page.
“I told Mids a bit sooner than most people would tell their bosses, but I knew Six Nations planning would be happening and I didn’t want them writing me into any plans and assuming I’d be there and having to pull in other players later on.”
And it wasn’t just the coaches who found out about the pregnancy in the early stages. Being a professional rugby player and around a team of 30 women all day doesn’t allow for too many secrets, as Ward continues to explain:
“I’ve had pretty bad morning sickness, which is not going away and that was the hardest thing to begin with when nobody knew. I was training as normal but was having to put on a brave face and pretend I was absolutely fine. Even when I was doing speed work and I thought I might have to run off and pretend I needed the toilet, but now if I am having a bad day I don’t need to hide that.”
In the world of sport, you hear of women having to meticulously plan their pregnancies around big tournaments and competitions, however, Ward reveals this wasn’t the case for her.
“As there are so many unknowns, you can’t really plan these things, but the way it’s worked out timing wise has been kind of perfect.
“In terms of this season, it was a bit disjointed anyway with the Word Cup and coming back in, plus with the introduction of the WXV we’re moving away from the summer internationals so there’s more time. I’ll have time away during the off season in July, but I’m looking to be back for the start of next season as much as I can.”
Alongside @theRPA we’re pleased to announce a ground breaking new maternity, pregnant parent and adoption leave policy for contracted England Women’s players ?
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 16, 2023
“The policy has been worked on for the past year and a half and I have confidence that they’ve spoken to other sports and countries and looked in-depth into best practice and that’s why its taken a longer period of time because they wanted to make sure they are getting it right. They know if they have a leading programme in terms of rugby on the pitch then they need to have a maternity policy which reflects and supports that.
“We were presented it earlier this month, and as I’ll be the first person trying it out I’ve said let’s use this period to learn, which includes the medics and the physios, because everything that happens now is only going to help the next player. People have called me a ‘guinea pig’ but that’s fine!”
It’s fair to say the past three months have been a rollercoaster one for Ward with the announcement and defeat in the World Cup final to New Zealand. Ward was involved in the final lineout when a Black Ferns steal in the air sealed the result and crushed English hearts.
Ward reflects maturely: “I think there really wasn’t much time to feel sorry for yourself and luckily, we were straight back into performing for club. The pregnancy has been a great new focus for me, I wouldn’t say it’s been a distraction but and there has been a lot going on and not a lot of time to sit and dwell.
“It’s obviously hugely disappointing and it’s not something you get over in a few days, but you have to compartmentalise and realise that that cycle is done now, we’re in a new cycle and we have new players and new coaches involved and more than anything there is a buzz around what’s going on at the moment.
“When you step back and look at the whole last year, it’s easy to get fixated on one game or a couple of moments but something we’ve tried to do as players is look at this whole period of women’s sport and rugby as a whole.
“I think it’s incredible how much the game has pushed on and to be a part of a World Cup final which sold out at Eden Park and seeing the viewing figures was amazing. Particularly with the next World Cup being at home and not that far away, it’s going to come around so quickly!
“Plus, to come back from the World Cup and to hear we’d already sold 20,000 tickets for when England play France in the Six Nations at Twickenham (now at 32,600), it’s incredible.”
The support for Ward has reached far and wide, and that’s the way it should be when an athlete decides to start a family during their playing days. You can’t help but feel Ward will be a shining light in this area for future England and international 15s players.
“I want to enjoy the journey and if I can pass anything on to the next player then brilliant and hopefully in the next couple of seasons this becomes more normal.
“It’s amazing watching the men’s Six Nations and all the players’ kids on the pitch and when you think of rugby, it’s a family sport. Hopefully that now can cross over to the women’s game and players will feel like they’ve got the choice and can be confident they can be a player and a mum at the same time.”