Meet Wales' new professional rugby players who have quit their full-time jobs to accept first WRU contracts – Wales Online

Wales Women now has 12 full-time professional rugby players after they were offered historic Welsh Rugby Union contracts, which last 12 months
After years of being pulled in different directions and not having enough hours in the day, Wales' 12 new professional rugby players were all given a welcome dilemma just a matter of weeks ago.
They had always represented Wales Women as amateur players: not getting paid while balancing rugby commitments for club and country alongside full-time work or education, not to mention the travel and lack of time for recovery and strength and conditioning.
Fortunately, those are now things of the past for Wales' professional chosen 12, while nine semi-professional players who have signed "retainer" deals will also feel similar effects, albeit to a smaller degree. Up to six more part-time Wales players will be contracted in the coming weeks, meaning head coach Ioan Cunningham and his coaching staff will be working with up to 27 Wales players regularly each week. Further players will be paid for being in a Six Nations/World Cup squad and being part of a matchday 23.
For the full-time dozen, they have all taken a leap of faith and left full-time employment or education to fully pursue their dream of being professional rugby players. Contracts last 12 months, with negotiations on the next cohort to begin late this summer or early autumn prior to the World Cup in October/November.
Here, we take a look at Wales Women's new professional players, their strengths and the jobs they have left behind to become full-time.
The 16-cap Wales and Sale Sharks prop first ventured into rugby while playing with her brothers and sisters on the family farm in Conwy, where she is a renowned sheepdog trainer – something she will have less time to do now she is a professional rugby player.
She formally took up rugby aged 16 when Clwb Rygbi Nant Conwy formed an U18 girls’ team, and later combined playing with working as an Urdd/WRU apprentice and WRU hub officer in north Wales schools for three years.
She has recently started an access to healthcare course in Coleg Llandrillo with a view to training as a midwife in the future.
"My father has been a big influence on my rugby career so far, pushing me to be the best I can be," she said.
"I want to do well for my family, friends and every coach who has helped me along the way."
Wales flanker Alisha Butchers, 24, also plies her club trade with Bristol and is another vocal leader in the international set-up.
Boasting a strong skill-set, Butchers has 32 caps to her name having also earned her first cap during the 2016 Six Nations.
She has put her job with Active Carmarthenshire on hold to become a full-time rugby player.
"My employers have been so understanding and flexible, allowing me to take unpaid leave for a year to put everything into this," she explained.
"To take the pay cut is tough but when you're following your dreams, you do what you've got to do.
"My family have supported me, I have support from my friends, so I couldn't say no. But hopefully they can improve a little bit and we can get a few more girls on contracts and they can be more sustainable in the long term for us.
"I'm really excited to have the opportunity over 12 months to see where we can take this programme."
Butchers started playing mixed rugby aged six for mixed mini and junior teams at Bynea and Llanelli Wanderers before playing for Carmarthen Quins Girls and Penybanc. She represented Scarlets and Wales at regional and international age grade before moving to Worcester and then joining Bristol.
Less than a year ago, she was forced to ask for money to pay for ankle surgery following an injury during a club training session.
"Injury is always a factor but having a positive attitude and good support system has allowed me to be here today which I wouldn’t have thought possible a year ago."
"It hasn't been easy being a girl playing, especially 15 years ago," she added. "There wasn't as many opportunities as there is now. The last five or six years playing for Wales, it's been my aspiration and to finally say I'm going to be able to put my all into this and give it 100% of my time is just really exciting.
"This goes to show we're just getting started. There's 12 of us now that are having the chance to be full-time and by the time a young girl comes through there's going to be even more. The future is bright, I would say."
Wales and Worcester Warriors scrum-half Ffion Lewis will be rivalling the aforementioned Keira Bevan for the No. 9 jersey, but head coach Ioan Cunningham was firm in wanting to include both in the full-time group.
"We wanted to include two full-time scrum halves in the group and we feel Keira Bevan and Ffion Lewis will complement and challenge each other within the environment," he explained. "Keira is very sharp, Ffion identifies running opportunities and we want to develop them both to be two of the best scrum-halves in the world."
The 25-year-old half-back, who has captained Wales' rugby league team, is taking a year's sabbatical from her role as PE and Welsh teacher at Bishop Hedley School in Merthyr Tydfil, who she praises as being extremely accommodating given she only started the job properly last September.
"The school have been incredible, they have been so supportive, especially as I’m still new to the school," the 17-cap international said.
"I try to be a role model to my pupils so hopefully by doing this I can show them they can achieve their goals."
Born in Haverfordwest, she started playing mixed rugby aged six but then went without a team until college, when she was selected for Scarlets U18s, supported by her rugby-loving family – including champion body-builder Flex – along the way, including in the depths of post-surgery doubt.
"A year ago I had just had shoulder injury, I had been in and out of selection for Wales so this seemed a long way off but it goes to show that you can come back stronger from knock-downs."
The Wales and Saracens prop has six caps to her name, and is therefore the most inexperienced player to earn a full-time deal.
She has given up a job as a carpenter to go full-time in rugby.
The dynamic ball-carrier was first introduced to rugby by a friend aged 16 at Wimborne RFC in Dorset before spending 12 years with Trojans in Hampshire.
An invitation to join Saracens in the summer of 2019 followed, where the 30-year-old forward converted to tighthead prop before being called up by Wales in the 2020-21 season. She earned caps in all six of Wales' games.
"This is beyond a dream," she said. "It couldn’t even feature in my dreams before being brought into the Wales set-up a year ago. I couldn’t believe it when I had the phone call.
"But now it’s a reality and I’m going to enjoy every second. I want to do everyone proud and give 100%. I’m still new to the scrum so technically this will be a game-changer along with the physical benefits."
Wales wing Lisa Neumann has been a regular on the motorway since breaking into the Wales squad for her debut in 2018, and would make the 200-mile one-way trip from Cardiff to her base in Manchester for mid-week training and matches without batting an eyelid.
That was all the while working full-time as a senior clinical trials data manager, making sure trials into cancer and diabetes medication harvested all the relevant information to make them a success.
A full-time contract has allowed the 22-cap international – a powerful, attacking runner – to leave that role, and while she will still be travelling to and from Manchester, it won't be with the pressure of getting up for work the following morning.
"I was shocked to be offered a full-time contract, but chuffed to bits," she said.
"It will be great to have the time to work on skills like my kicking game and handling skills can always get better.
"The biggest thing for me based in Manchester, is that I will be able to train, recover and be the best I can be in the build-up to the Six Nations and World Cup.”
Neumann "dabbled" with rugby at St Davids School in Pembrokeshire and also the University in Manchester.
"My studies always came first until then and I hadn’t really committed to any team," she added.
"I didn’t really believe I was any good or commit to a team until I was selected for the 2018 Six Nations after playing for the Scarlets in a Super Six competition. It was only really then that I took rugby more seriously, once I saw what being part of a performance environment was all about."
Wales No. 8 and Bristol Bears back-rower Siwan Lillicrap has captained the international team for two years, boasts an impressive understanding of the game and will put her body on the line for her team.
The 34-year-old forward, with 40 caps to her name, has left her job as head of rugby at Swansea University to accept a contract.
"Even though it may sound like a tough decision, it wasn’t for me because you’ve got to remember the thing I love doing most is playing rugby and having the honour to wear that Welsh shirt is an unbelievable feeling," Lillicrap told WalesOnline.
"This is something I’ve always wanted to do. The reality is it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"I’ve had a great seven years at Swansea University, four years in my role as head of rugby, and they’ve been fantastic to me. They’ve been completely supportive and have said the door is always open in the future to return. It was a no-brainer. They even agreed, ‘Siwan, you need to take this opportunity and we’ll support you fully’.
"To have the chance to be a better player and fulfil my dream was an absolute no-brainer for me."
Things haven't always been easy in this rugby journey, though, as the skipper loved rugby as a child but didn't have a team to play in.
She would watch her dad Tim coach and her brother Gethin play at Swansea's Waunarlwydd RFC, but there were no local junior girls’ sides for her to join, meaning she didn't start playing until aged 17.
Later on in her career, she even considered walking away from rugby altogether after remaining on the Wales fringes for a number of years. But, after four or five years in the extended squad, she made her debut aged 28 in the 2016 Six Nations and is now a key figure in the set-up, having led the senior leadership team in contract negotiations with the WRU.
"This is going to change us, our lives and Welsh women’s rugby for this next 12 months and beyond," she added.
"We’ve got a chance to change the face of Welsh women’s rugby and change the narrative and story and that is even bigger than any of us personally."
Read more: Wales captain breaks down in tears as reality of turning professional hits home
Wales and Gloucester-Hartpury centre Hannah Jones is a bedrock of the midfield and is another notable leader in the group, if less outspoken than others. She relishes the physical side of rugby and leads defensively.
Jones, with 32 caps to her name after a Wales debut in 2015, has taken a break from her PGCE studies at Cardiff Metropolitan University despite being just a few weeks from finishing a placement and qualifying.
Many will recall the lovely moment Jones was proposed to by her boyfriend, Llandovery and former Italy U20 prop Dino Dallavalle, on the Cardiff Arms Park pitch following Wales' autumn finale.
Jones started playing mixed rugby in primary school in Brynamman then joined Crynant RFC. She was later spotted for regional U18s.
"My family are very rugby-orientated it, lived and breathed rugby and I’m very grateful for their support," Jones said.
"I did all sports growing up and it was only when I got picked up for regional U18s that I had to focus on rugby but all the other sports definitely helped too.
"It’s an honour to be able to take up this contract, more time for skills, fitness, analysis, recovery. Really excited to get going and see how far we can go individually and as a team."
A stalwart of this Wales team and a voice of reason amid turbulence of recent years in the environment, Wales and Bristol fly-half Elinor Snowsill will now get the chance to further hone her skills with a full-time deal.
The 32-year-old known throughout the game as Snowy has an experienced head and understands the game brilliantly.
She has 61 caps to her name, following a debut against Sweden in 2009, and was actually ready to hang her boots up following last season's winless Six Nations.
But thankfully Snowsill stuck with the process and has since been rewarded with a professional contract, which she left her position at School of Hard Knocks – a charity which uses sport to tackle unemployment, crime and poor health – to accept.
"I loved my time at School of Hard Knocks but now can focus solely on rugby career which is a privilege," she said.
"I’m hoping it will make a huge difference to my game. As a fly-half, skills are vital, you have to be an all-rounder. I’m hoping to work on my individual skills along with fitness and strength too while having time for recovery."
Snowsill, who was born in Ascot, actually aspired to play football for England as a child but picked up touch rugby in school – Ysgol Plasmawr in Cardiff – where former Wales prop Catrin Edwards was PE teacher. Experiences playing at the Principality Stadium came her way, while her team won the Welsh Schools touch tournament three years in a row. Snowy later joined Cardiff Quins and was selected for Wales U20s before her senior international career took off. She has also played for the Barbarians and appeared at the Commonwealth Games for Wales.
"Playing for your country is one thing but building a long-term international career is a whole other challenge," she said. "It’s been tough at times but I’m so glad I’ve stuck at it. Competing at the Commonwealth Games in Australia was a pivotal moment for me, playing for the Barbarians in Colorado – with my parents watching – was also incredible. And now to be rewarded with one of these contracts is hard to describe, certainly the pinnacle of my career. It’s not something I thought would happen for me."
Carys Phillips' resurgence on the international stage during the autumn after more than 700 days away to earn a full-time Wales contract is the feel-good story of the bunch.
Th 54-cap hooker and former Wales captain, who got her first cap in 2013, had pretty much been absent from the Wales set-up since her father Rowland left his head coach role with no clear explanation by the WRU.
But a new coaching roster and excellent form for Worcester Warriors combined led to a Wales recall in the autumn, when she put in powerful performances and scored a number of tries.
An exceptional talent as a throwing hooker, Phillips remains a strong leader in this group.
She has resigned as an adaptive sports coach at Worcester Warriors to become professional.
"Worcester have been so supportive but who knows what will happen in the future," she said.
Phillips first played for Skewen U8s and then Neath RFC before leaving home for Cardiff Met and Bristol, while she played for Swansea before joining Worcester in 2019.
"Playing for Worcester over the last two years has been brilliant for me. The coaching there is excellent and the standard of games in the Allianz that makes you a better player too.
"When I was invited to the autumn squad, I wanted to do my best and enjoy myself. I must have impressed Ioan to get a contract, something I never thought would happen.
"Now we’re here and we have to make everything count. It’s going to be a massive lifestyle change for us all but if we take the opportunity with both hands I’m sure we will see a big difference in our performance. My whole family are my biggest supporters and they were chuffed to bits when I told them the news."
Wales and Team GB flyer Jasmine Joyce is no stranger to a highlights reel, boasts lightning-fast pace and has one of the best strike rates in world rugby.
The 20-cap wing, occasional full-back and Wales Sevens international is a double Olympian, having represented Team GB at Rio 2016 before making her Union debut in 2017 against Scotland.
Joyce has enjoyed the luxury of being a full-time rugby player for the last year with Team GB, and is now completing her PGCE teaching placement with University of Wales Trinity St David this month before joining joining Wales' programme full-time.
She first played rugby for St Davids RFC in Pembrokeshire aged six, and was even told she was too small to make it in the sport.
But her talents are already world-class, and the 26-year-old tireless bolter boasts a profile that transcends her sport.
"I love doing what I’m doing, I’m motivated by my targets – whether that’s an Olympics or a Rugby World Cup," she said.
"After being full-time this last year, to have the chance to do that again is what you want as a rugby player. To be able to focus on one thing is the key and the WRU and club programmes should help each other.
"It’s going to make a huge difference for 12 players to be full-time, it’s just what we need as a squad moving into the Six Nations and then the Rugby World Cup."
The 38-cap scrum-half, yet another Bristol Bear, is a sharp lieutenant on the field and like all No. 9s enjoys on-field chatter.
A qualified personal trainer, Bevan started out playing mixed and junior rugby at Pontarddulais before later resuming the sport while at Neath Port Talbot College, where she was picked up by the Ospreys Sevens set-up and went on to represent Wales Sevens at U18 and senior level.
Her first Union cap came at the age of 17 against England in 2015.
"To be given one of the first full-time contracts means so much," she said. "I’ve been working towards this day for a long time. I just want to keep improving every day now.
"It means so much to my family too. I have a lot to thank my dad for, he always pushes me to be better and both my parents are so supportive, they travel everywhere to support me."
Wales and Bristol lock Natalia John was one of the standout performers during the autumn campaign, which yielded two wins from three, has a huge workrate and aged 25 has plenty of potential for further improvement.
The 22-cap forward, who made her Wales debut in 2018, has left her role as a physics teacher at Ysgol y Gwendraeth in Carmarthenshire.
"I’m sad to leave my job but I would tell my students to follow their dreams and now it’s time for me to follow mine," she said.
The second-row only took up rugby in 2014 while studying for a materials engineering degree at Swansea University, where her current team-mate Lillicrap was actually her first coach.
"Growing up in a pub, rugby was always a big part of my life and once I started playing, my dad, who played rugby himself, became my biggest influence," John adds.
"I’ve always wanted to be the best player I can be, win a Wales cap and make my family proud. This is an incredible opportunity and I’m so excited to see how much I can improve over the next 12 months."
The 12 full-time contracts have already been supplemented by nine semi-professional deals which have been announced this week.
Forwards Gwen Crabb, Georgia Evans, Kat Evans, Cerys Hale, Abbie Fleming and Bethan Lewis, along with backs Kerin Lake, Caitlin Lewis and Niamh Terry, will train alongside their full-time colleagues between one and three days a week.
Up to six more players on the "retainer" contracts will be joining the Welsh Rugby Union's performance programme in the coming weeks, with two upcoming training camps acting as a final audition.
Wales head coach Cunningham said the players will be a "vital addition" to the performance programme.
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