Wales are a team on the up as they prepare to meet France in the penultimate round of the Women’s Six Nations.
Having not won for three years prior to the tournament, they take two victories from their three matches at this championship into the clash with title challengers France.
Such a turnaround would have been unthinkable just months ago but Wales are enjoying their first campaign with full-time players.
A total of 12 contracts were handed out to players early this year and results show that the move has already started to pay off.
The women in red beat Ireland and Scotland to go unbeaten in their opening two fixtures for the first time since 2015 before being humbled by England in front of 14,000 fortnight ago.
Losing to the Red Roses is no shock, however. Simon Middleton’s side are on an unbeaten run which stretches back to mid-2019, the year in which England reinstated central contracts within their ranks.
Prior to that, the Rugby Football Union had slashed the number of deals for XVs players following their defeat to New Zealand in the 2017 World Cup final, instead focusing on the sevens circuit.
Since then, however, the restoration of contracts and stability to the English game – combined with a strong domestic league – has elevated the depth available to Middleton.
The national XVs side have continued on a generally brilliant run of results – they only have an all-time winning percentage below 70 against one team, New Zealand – but the return of professionalism has brought a new sense of job security, where the financial investment matches the personal sacrifices that the players have made.
England have paved the way in recent years, losing just once since the contracts were introduced in 2019, and are on course to head to a World Cup later this year as favourites.
Others are beginning to follow suit. While France are already widely semi-professional, Italy have announced their intention to take a similar path.
Ireland are embarking on a widespread restructure following a damning review into their women’s set-up, while Scotland are looking to make progress also.
Why the sudden shift in movement? Well, there’s obviously the case that this is overdue and should have happened a long time ago.
But this season’s Six Nations results are more crucial than in recent years. The top three ranked sides will be well placed to go into the top group of a new global women’s calendar for the next three years while the others will linger outside.
The need to be in that inner circle is greater now than ever, and Wales’ sudden form could see them sneak that third spot behind Six Nations favourites England and France.
“This is set to be a very demanding but unforgettable year for women’s rugby and these players will benefit from the full range of our expert on and off-field support,” Wales’ group chief executive Steve Phillips said earlier this year.
From one side of the river Severn, Wales are seeing what professionalism and a strong domestic league can do for the women’s game on the other side – and they’ll be keen to copy it.
Whether they are able to set up their own competition or apply for a team to join the English game remains to be seen, but the necessity of picking a path and following it now could shape the next decade.
As Wales host France this evening in front of a few thousand people, runaway leaders of the game England will on Sunday host a potential world record crowd in Leicester.
The gap between the Red Roses and the rest is stark, but at the very least others have woken up to that fact.