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‘We are not mini men, we are women, and things have just changed forever’ – Katie Sands

I was eating pizza and ice cream probably three times a week. I was done with rugby. I was very, very close to retiring after the 2021 Six Nations. I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore. It wasn’t a great place to be in or perform in.

But I’m actually at a point now where I don’t think I’ve enjoyed rugby as much in my career as I am now. For the first time in years, I can say I’m really looking forward to coming to Wales training and I’m really looking forward to playing for Wales. I haven’t been able to say that for a long time.

I’m really thankful in particular that people like Dave Ward, my Bristol coach, encouraged me to stay in the game. He said ‘please just give pre-season a go and see what you think’. I gave it a go and I absolutely loved it. And then we had Ioan Cunningham come in for Wales, and I thought I’ve got to give a new coach a chance, and loved it again.

Read more: How this Wales team has been transformed and given proper chance to become world-beaters

It has been tough for a lot of players in the Wales squad, we were all feeling it. Credit to the coaching team who have come in now, they had quite a difficult task, they had a squad which was pretty depleted in how we were feeling and they pulled us all together and made us into something that will hopefully be exciting to watch.

I’m so glad I’ve stayed because look where I am now. I would never have thought I’d be here. If you’ve got something you want to go for, never give up that hope.

PLAYING RUGBY FOR A LIVING AND QUITTING MY DAY JOB

I was in my house getting ready to go out and Ioan started calling me. I thought he might want to talk about the review of the autumn campaign or something, but he said he’d like to offer me a contract. You know it’s going to be a possibility when you’re playing in the autumns but it’s not something you never want to get carried away with, so you think ‘if it happens then I’ll think about it then but I don’t want to get excited beforehand.’ I came off the phone and rang my parents. I think my mum cried which got me a bit emotional as well.

I didn’t think it would happen in my career. I’ve been involved for 12 years, and these contracts have been floated and dangled in front of us for probably the last four or five seasons but it never materialised. We hadn’t received a penny before that announcement in terms of match fees or training time in camp, we were doing it all completely for free as do most other countries playing and competing across the world in the female game.

I thought the younger girls that I’m playing with now, if they’re fortunate enough then they might get the opportunity, but I had sort of written it off in the last few years in my head. To be offered something that you think is not going to happen in your time was just incredible, and it was definitely something I was going to take. We’ve gone from zero to actually some full-time contracts where 12 people can actually give up their jobs and focus solely on rugby which is huge.

I absolutely loved my time with School of Hard Knocks – I turned down an A-level psychology teaching job to work one day a week with them! It worked out well but it was a huge risk. It gave me a real value to the work I was doing. When you play it’s amazing and you hope you can inspire people but you don’t see that – you only really see it when you’re having pictures at the end of a game or signing stuff, you don’t get to know those people, it’s really fleeting.

Whereas when you’re working with these kids day in day out and seeing the real change you can make just by supporting them and showing them what they’re capable of and giving them confidence, I got a lot of fulfilment out of that. But it’s a very tough job and the demands of rugby have grown over the last few seasons hugely, it was becoming more and more difficult to juggle. Something had to give, and thankfully it wasn’t me having to retire from rugby, it was the other way around.

WALES’ NEW TEAM AND WHAT’S CHANGED

Being back based at the Vale, first off, is huge because the facilities there are incredible, and just having access to the same facilities as the men do in the same area makes a big difference in terms of how we’re treated, so that’s great. For me, the big difference that I’ve noticed already is going into the gym at 9.30am when it’s one of the first things you’ve done that day, you get so much more out of it immediately, physically, than when you’ve worked an eight-hour day and carried all the baggage with you to the gym and the last thing you want to do is push yourself in bench or squats. Just being able to put the time and energy into the gym, into training, into skills training, eating enough, that’s immediately had a huge effect.

From a coaching perspective, the detail that Ioan and Whiff [Richard Whiffin] have brought in and the way they’ve treated us, it’s just how things should be done. You have to see it done well for you to realise how things have been done in the past has maybe not been done how it should have been, and how players should be treated. Ioan has come into the set-up and his professionalism, but also his understanding of us as players, has been a breath of fresh air, and almost a relief, especially for us senior players.

And Whiff’s level of detail is what we need against the top teams, because their defences are so good now. We’re not the biggest team, we’re not going to run them over so we have to find the small chinks in their armour and be on top form to be able to break them. In the past, we’ve had 101 plays and real complex things but without even making sure the fundamentals were there first. We’re going back to basics of set-piece, our contact area, and being able to keep the ball because then we can pile on the detail as we go from campaign to campaign.

It really feels like a new era. Wales are in as good a place as we can be right now. With the investment the Union has given us and them being behind us, I’m hoping that you’ll see a much better, much improved Wales over the next 12 months.

‘WE ARE NOT MINI MEN, WE ARE WOMEN’

Moving forward, I’d like to see women’s rugby forge its own path rather than try and emulate the men’s too much. I found a really good quote during lockdown, maybe from one of the Chelsea footballers, but it said ‘we are not mini men, we are women’.

It’s about finding our own identity as a sport, which I think we are doing. I think the Six Nations and World Cup in New Zealand will be huge for that. They had New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – she’s an absolute legend – at the launch which is just insane, and the real important thing for me was she never once called it the ‘Women’s World Cup’, she called it the ‘World Cup’.

That’s really important, it’s not about being women’s or men’s, it’s not about us trying to be like the men’s, it’s just a World Cup, and you come and watch it because it’s a World Cup. That’s what I want.

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