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Alisha Butchers and Jasmine Joyce prepare for their first Six Nations as professional rugby players

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As a little girl, Alisha Butchers had the impossible dream of becoming a professional rugby player. Now, that dream has become a reality.

The Wales rugby internationals will be heading into the forthcoming Women’s Six Nations tournament as one of the destined dozen, the 12 players who made history by becoming the country’s first group of female, full-time professional players.

For Butchers, the decision to pursue a rugby career full-time has been made easier thanks to her current employers. Carmarthenshire Council, where she worked as a sports development officer, has granted her 12 month’s unpaid leave.

The chance to fulfil a lifetime ambition and the generosity of her previous employer in keeping her job open, meant it was an offer she could not refuse.

“This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a young girl,” says Butchers.

“When you do something like playing sport, it’s a dream and you have to follow. It’s something you can’t say no to. 

“It’s one of those things you’ve just got to do, regardless. Obviously, you’ve got to make a decision with your head screwed on, but you’ve got to follow it at the end of the day.”

So, along with 11 other players – including her partner, double Olympian Jasmine Joyce – 24-year-old Butchers has taken the plunge and the WRU will be hopeful the sole concentration their players are now giving to sport will pay dividends in a World Cup year.

Not that the decision was an easy one, given her equal dedication to her previous role, working in schools and trying to help children to become more active.

“I worked as a young people’s officer on the participation side of the pathway.

“I worked with Key Stage 2 up to 6th Form. I’d mainly be in secondary schools where I’d provide activities for SEN (Special Educational Needs) children, running engagement sessions.

“My role was to focus on trying to get children as active as possible within schools and also a lot of work within the community. We’d work in deprived areas.

“We did the summer of fun kind of stuff, then I’d also link in with primary schools as well, running different initiatives.

“It was a massive decision to leave that, but my employers were really understanding and they’ve even given me a year’s unpaid leave, effectively. I’ve officially left the role, but I have the opportunity to go back in January if need be. I’m really lucky.”

It’s not the first time Butchers has had to make a big call when it came to her job versus her rugby.

“I was a hub officer for Cardiff Blues, in the Blues community team. Then, myself, Jaz and Hannah Jones moved to Australia for a few months to play. 

“I left my role as a hub officer and I played in the AON Sevens league. Then we came back and that’s when I got my role with Carmarthenshire Council.”

Alisha Butchers and Jasmine Joyce walking together in their Wales training kit
Welsh rugby players and partners, Alisha Butchers and Jasmine Joyce. Picture: WRU
This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a young girl
Alisha Butchers

By next January, the 12 Wales players on full-time contracts – plus 12 more on part-time deals – will have gone through a Six Nations tournament and a World Cup.

They will have had a full year of working, training and preparing together for matches, which it is hoped will improve performance levels and results.

If there are any doubters over what gains can be made by focusing on the sport full-time, then they have to look no further than the recent experiences of both Butchers and Joyce.

A year ago, Butchers did not even have sufficient medical insurance to pay for an operation after she injured her ankle playing for Bristol Bears.

Her club agreements did not stretch to covering her medical bills, so she had to crowd-fund to raise the £5,000 needed for the op.

Not long after, 26-year-old Joyce – arguably the world’s most exciting female rugby player – returned from Olympic Sevens duty in Tokyo to find herself unemployed.

It was while she was juggling a PGCE and her rugby commitments, that the WRU made the commitment to significantly invest in the elite women’s game and ringfence money for full-time and retainer contracts along with other resources such as staff and support on all levels.

Joyce – who recently became the first female player to feature on the front cover of Rugby Journal – said to the Western Telegraph: “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.

“There are some very exciting times ahead, it's something we have all waited patiently for, and are finally being given our opportunity. I can't wait to live my dream job for another year.”

For both players – who announced their engagement earlier this year – the decision to become full-time professional athletes is daunting, but thrillingly exciting.

“It means an absolute lot to us, I think it’s a massive step forward in the right direction for rugby in Wales,” says Butchers.

“I think it was much-needed and we’ve all taken the opportunity with both hands. It’s great and a step in the right direction for us and the only way is up.

“The Six Nations is my next focus and it’s obviously a World Cup year. I am just aiming to become the best rugby player I can be. 

“I’m flying into the World Cup and performing on the world stage, I guess. We have lots of training at the moment, we’re in the tenth block of it, but we’re enjoying ourselves.

“I am actually living the dream.”

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