Valerie Connolly – How Premiership Rugby Scholarships programme provided validation

For Valerie Connolly, travelling across the pond to work with Premiership Rugby on a coaching programme was more than just a meeting of minds – it’s added an extra spring to her step.

Connolly, who coaches girls rugby for Maryland Exiles, was one of 14 coaches that travelled to the UK from USA in March as part of a ground-breaking initiative run by Premiership Rugby in partnership with the Friends of the British Council and USA Rugby that aims to grow the sport in the US.

The group of coaches did sessions with Harlequins, London Irish and Saracens, and as well as learning plenty of rugby-focused strategies, Connolly found she’s returned to America with renewed vigour.

“I felt the experience was phenomenal,” explained Connolly, who is also president of Rugby Maryland. “For me as a coach and a volunteer for five years and dealing with youth sports, putting up with teenagers and parents and having to pay my dues in a lot of the programmes; I really felt rewarded for my work for all the past five years.

“It felt like I was very appreciated for the work that I had done and the other coaches too. All the accommodation and the logistics were great, getting us from A to B, it provided some really valuable experiences.
“It’s had a real positive impact on me, it gave me a little more steam to keep going and kind of validated what I had previously learned about coaching in the US.”

The scholarships are the key legacy from Premiership Rugby’s American Series, which kicked off with the Premiership Rugby clash between Newcastle Falcons and Saracens in Philadelphia in September 2017.

The all-expenses-paid trip for the party, also including eight male and eight female players, gave an insight into one of the most competitive leagues in world rugby and allowed an exchange of ideas.

And with interest and participation in rugby growing rapidly in the USA at present, Connolly took on plenty of information but also felt the trip confirmed that coaching is already of a high standard across the pond.

“The biggest takeaway for me was kind of funny,” she added. “It was a big reinforcement for most of us that what we were already doing in the States was very similar in terms of tactics and philosophies in the Premiership.

“Decision-making under pressure, versatility in passing situations, to prepare for the unexpected – getting our players to be thinkers rather than just doers.

“I’d recommend it to everyone. It’s not about the high pedigree of your coaching resumé, it’s about what you’ve given to the sport and what you want to give to the sport – it’s about the rugby community.”