It was during the five-hour coach journey from London to the north east last Sunday when DMP Durham Sharks, frustrated by the swirling negativity and unsolicited comments being hurled their way on social media, decided to fight back.
The team had just suffered their latest humiliation: a 104-0 hammering in Saracens’ back garden. The scoreline was familiar territory, DMP remain the only side in the Premier 15s without a win this season. “Please stop the online abuse,” one player punched into their phone, before uploading the statement on the club’s platforms, “for our mental health, because that really matters.”
Within minutes, high-profile names from within the rugby community weighed in with their own support for the club. England’s Poppy Cleall, who scored three of Saracens’ 18 tries that afternoon, paid tribute to DMP’s resilience, saying they were “every reason why I started playing rugby.” “We respect you - keep fighting,” added Rocky Clark, England’s most capped player of all time.
The support meant the world to the club's beleaguered players, who have won just nine games since the Premier 15s launched in 2017. “It was really heartwarming,” reflects George Thomas-Roberts, DMP’s captain. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to social media, but the whole team was lifted by it and feeling a little bit more supported and understood.”
— Allianz Premier 15s (@Premier15s) January 9, 2022
Now in her 18th season at the club, Thomas-Roberts has seen first-hand how increased investment from Premiership clubs into their female counterparts has created a talent drain. While DMP can proudly claim to have produced some of the country’s finest female players, from World Cup-winning former England captain Katy Daley-McLean to reigning world player of the year Zoe Aldcroft, they are better known for losing their players to rival clubs in the league. It is a sad state of affairs for a side that has played a part in the careers of at least 50 England internationals at representative level, half of whom have featured for England in the past five years, while at least 10 Scotland internationals have also been tempted elsewhere.
“There’s a big gap in the resources and the opportunities that are afforded to Sharks compared to the other clubs," admits Thomas-Roberts. "It’s fantastic that they’re moving forward in the way that they are, but it’s a shame that this elite team in the north east is being left behind.”
As the only side in English women’s top-flight not officially linked with a Premiership Rugby club, DMP does not enjoy the same financial leverage as other teams. It relies solely on amateur players like Thomas-Roberts, who holds caps for England at both XVs and sevens level.
DMP remain the only Premier 15s side who have never been live-streamed at home by the Rugby Football Union, which selects matches that it says “showcase the league in the best possible light”. But it is a hard ask for a cash-strapped outfit that has won just one of their last 27 matches and scored 12 points in nine games this season to meet the governing body criteria.
So what motivates them to keep going? “We’re a close group and we treat each other as family,” explains Thomas-Roberts, adding that “in-built resilience” is woven through the club’s fabric. When not pitting herself against full-time professionals on the pitch, she is busy overseeing clinical trials for a “top-secret” antibody treatment for Covid-19. “It’s been pretty full on over the past two years,” says the analytical chemist.
But the flow of talent isn't only going in one direction. Sam Herrick, a single mother who is in her second season at DMP, has bucked the trend. Having previously enjoyed stints at Gloucester-Hartpury and Bristol Bears, she joined the club during the Covid-hit 2020-21 season amid a shortage of props after relocating to the north east.
“We are a good team,” Herrick tells Telegraph Sport, the passion cutting through her voice. “It is frustrating when you are playing a team of 15 who are pretty much their full time job. As a team, we dig in, we keep going. If we were getting paid for what we’re doing, we’d be next level.”
Such is Herrick’s enthusiasm for the game that she returned to rugby just three months after giving birth in 2017, in part due to the “massive support network” she can count on for childcare. Even if it means a constant dribble of defeats, rugby remains the constant in her life. “I’ve gone through a breakup and divorce over the whole of Covid, but rugby takes everything away,” she says.
Herrick takes pride in being a role model to some of the squad’s newest players, such as Rosie Inman, who began training with DMP last year. A student at Durham University, which officially linked with DMP two years ago, Inman just missed the cut-off point for England under-20 selection, but playing for an under-resourced club has not marred her aspirations to progress in the sport.
“I’ve always wanted to play rugby at a high level,” she says. “Because of Covid, the Premier 15s was the only level that was still going when I wanted to play. We’re doing as much as we can, we can’t be down about it.”
Amid the pace that the female game is developing, the club is still galvanized by a sense of community culture that investment and professionalism can often sweep aside. “I would love to play for a team that does win - but I’d rather stay here and help elite women’s rugby in the north east progress,” concludes Thomas-Roberts.
It is that open mindset which is driving DMP forwards. They may be down, but they are certainly not out.