'We'd not shown it the respect it deserved' - How Wales women joined rugby's professional ranks

For the first two months of her new job, Lisa Neumann had a 200-mile commute. She didn't mind the four-hour drive down the M6 from Manchester to the National Centre of Excellence in Cardiff. It was a journey she had made hundreds of times in the past few years to play international rugby for Wales. Before January this year, though, Neumann never thought she would become one of the country's first full-time, professional women's players.

Not long ago the 28-year-old was balancing a 40-hour-a-week desk job, working as a senior clinical trials data manager involved in the testing of cancer and diabetes treatments, with rugby for her club and country. She would drive down to Wales with no second thoughts, up to three times a week, for mid-week training or matches. On those days, she would start work at 7 a.m. By the time she was back, it was often 3 a.m the following morning. "I'd get in [to work] the next day at 9 o'clock, 10 if my boss would let me have a bit of a lie-in," Neumann tells ESPN. "You do look back and question how you did it."

She remembers the phone call from head coach Ioan Cunningham well, offering her one of the year-long contracts. "It was a no-brainer for me. It's honestly incredible to wake up and go to a job I absolutely love. I can't say that I've done that in the past four years."

It is not difficult to understand why. Before, players like Neumann juggled training, work and travel, with not enough hours in the day to focus on the other key sides of performance -- nutrition, analysis, strength and conditioning and, most importantly, recovery.

Now a dozen full-time players like Neumann, alongside 12 players on part-time retainer contracts, have time to do just that.

"I think, early days, maybe speaking on behalf of some of the players, I think they were a bit lost, thinking: 'I've probably got a meeting to go to this afternoon or a phone call to make,'" Cunningham says. "But they haven't because this is their job now." Already he can see a shift in their performance for the better, not only on the pitch but also in mind-set.

He describes their talent as "unbelievable" and their power to inspire young players as "magical". "Just to be part of this journey and this process fills me with pride as a Welshman and I'm just delighted to be part of it," he adds.

Captain Siwan Lillicrap describes it as "surreal." Growing up, there was no local junior girl's side for her to join. She had to wait until she was 17 to start playing, waited five years in Wales' extended squad to earn her first cap in 2016, and now, six years on, she can call rugby her full-time career. "It's changed our lives," Lillicrap tells ESPN. The emotional side was clear in her first news conference as a professional player. "I fought for so long to even get my first Welsh cap and to be in this privileged position now, and with the strides the game has taken, is massive," she said through tears.

But for some, these strides have not come soon enough. For all Wales' progress, England remain the only one of the Six Nations to have a full squad of full-time professionals. It has been three years since the Rugby Football Union handed their women's side full-time contracts, with players now earning up to £30,000 a year.

The Red Roses have not lost a match since 2019, have won three Six Nations championships in a row and lead the world rankings by a stretch. France, Ireland and Scotland have varying degrees of financial commitment, from part-time contracts to appearance fees, while Italy's players only get paid expenses.

Elsewhere in the world, Reigning world champions New Zealand have been semi-professional from 2018, but announced last month that 29 players were to commit to the programme full-time with the lowest earning contracts valued at NZ$60,000 (£31,215). By comparison, the Telegraph reported in November that the Wales contracts would be around £19,000, a figure significantly less than their counterparts at the top of the women's game.

"I wouldn't have taken it [the contract]," former Wales international Alecs Donovan tells ESPN. A yoga instructor with her own company, YBL Ltd., she wouldn't have been able to give up on the business she has spent years building. "You sacrifice so much for the women's game. People haven't gone for promotions in the past, quit their jobs to do a tournament.

"It's not unheard of -- people giving up a lot for women's rugby. Some girls have dropped their wage by half to take these contracts."

Donovan retired on the eve of the 2021 Six Nations. She had got to the point where she didn't want to go to training anymore, the tiredness taking over from balancing a physical job with a physical sport. During her first camp, she remembers playing at the Principality Stadium. "I think the game finished at 4 p.m. and then I had to drive to teach a yoga class by 5:30 p.m., after just finishing an international," she says, describing how it felt to train through fatigue, feeling like she could never reach her potential.

"I think especially the last year wasn't physically demanding, it was emotionally really difficult. It was from issues that have happened in management, to not having a consistent coach to then having to give up so much time.

"You could really tell in camp that people were emotionally, physically just tired."

When Donovan retired, the team had not won a match since March 2019. By the time the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) first announced contracts would be awarded in November 2021, they had gone two years without a win. Then there was coaching turbulence, starting with long-standing head coach Rowland Phillips leaving his position in March 2020. The squad went without a permanent coach until Warren Abrahams took up the reins in November 2020, alongside former captain Rachel Taylor as skills coach. However, just a few months later, Taylor unexpectedly resigned due to concerns she had about the program. By July 2021, Abrahams had also left his role.

It was during this time that 123 former internationals called on the WRU to "do better" for women's rugby in Wales. Their message was clear: that they could not "stand by and watch the game deteriorate further".

Donovan was one of those women. During her time in the squad, she found the expectations of being in the team and the lack of understanding from their full-time management and coaches tough. She recalls two occasions which stood out vividly. The first when a member of the squad who worked for the NHS was fined for being late for training after finishing a shift at the hospital, and the moment one of the members of their coaching staff gave an inspirational speech about how his goal was to coach Wales men's squad one day.

"That to me spoke volumes," says Donovan. "It was [a realisation that] we're not fighting against the social media people that say women shouldn't play rugby, we're fighting against the organisation. That was unbelievable."

The WRU's board and executive have since admitted that they got things wrong. In 2021, they commissioned a review into the women's performance strategy, and when Nigel Walker was appointed as their new performance director later that year, he named the development of the women's game as a priority. It was not long after that he and CEO Steve Phillips apologised to the squad.

"I remember that evening very well," Walker tells ESPN. "They were gracious enough to accept that apology. To say we made a pig's ear of it might be going too far but as a union, we'd not shown the programme the respect it deserved and we're in the process of getting that right.

"International sport, male, female, whatever sport it is, is tough. If you put barriers in front of your athletes or your players, it becomes impossible."

His ultimate goal is to make it the best women's programme in the world. "This is the start of the journey," he adds. "We're nowhere near the end just yet." With two wins out of three in the 2021 Autumn Internationals, things appear to be on the up already.

"We've got certainty now," Lillicrap says, looking forward to Wales' Six Nations opener against Ireland on March 26. It is the second-year running that the competition will be standalone to the men's, and with a big new sponsor in TikTok, there are more eyes on it than ever. "We've had a tough few years in one of the best tournaments in the world so we're super excited to see where we are on that stage."

For Neumann, a move from Sale Sharks to Gloucester-Hartpury consigns her 200-mile commute to the past. She's closer to Wales now, and can spend more time concentrating on the sport she loves. "If I'm honest," she says, "I just can't wait to play now."