Wasps Ladies and England great Nolli Waterman talks exclusively to Sky Sports Rugby about her Test retirement, injury horrors and where the women’s game must go from here…
It’s exceedingly rare in modern sport for professional athletes to go out on their terms.
For every Richie McCaw and Jonny Wilkinson going out in a blaze of glory, there are far more players like Bryan Habana and Paul O’Connell who call time after non-selection or injury.
Yet back in May, one of the most decorated players in the history of England rugby hung up her international boots as Danielle ‘Nolli’ Waterman stepped away from the Test arena.
I am enormously grateful and feel very blessed to have represented my country for such a long period of time. Through the thick and thin, I have so many incredible memories and made friends that I will always treasure. Thank you #109 🌹 pic.twitter.com/mH0tP4AGyl
— Danielle (Nolli) Waterman (@nolli15) May 1, 2018
The 33-year-old will continue to play club rugby with Wasps Ladies but leaves her England career behind content she has achieved far more than she could ever have dreamed of – seven Grand Slams, a World Cup winners’ medal and Olympic Games just some of the highlights.
Unlike her male counterparts, Waterman almost exclusively played a career at the top without receiving financial reward. Yet as the full-back sips a cup of tea at a Twickenham cafe, she insists it was never about pounds and pence…
“To be honest, 12 of my 15 international years in rugby were unpaid and I accepted that and to have had the three years where I was professional was a great opportunity.
“But, I was also earning less than what I was at work during that time. It was never about the money, it never has been about the money. In terms of retiring, money played no part in my decision.
“If the girls get contracts in this coming season, fantastic, I know the benefits of it, and I know it needs to happen, the sooner the better. But my retirement was all about making sure I’d achieved everything I wanted and finished on a note I was proud on.
“I genuinely had so much fun doing it. Yes I could have played one more season, but actually the set-up is all about the build to the next World Cup and that’s not on my radar. It is for the younger players, and for me to look towards other careers.
“I was happy to retire after the game against Ireland because when I looked up into the stand, all my family were there and enjoying it. My brothers, my mum, my dad, my step parents. They’ve been able to experience the journey with me. It’s been unbelievable.
“It’ll be heart-wrenching to watch England run out and not be part of it, but everything I love about England, I get at Wasps.
“I walk away not bitter at all because it was my decision.”
The youngest of three to parents Jim and Sue, rugby was always the sport of choice for Waterman growing up in England’s South West, particularly with older brothers Sam and Joe paving the way by first picking up the oval ball.
A four-year stint living in New Zealand’s Palmerston North between the ages of five and nine, plus the fact her father played over 450 games for Bath, only intensified Waterman’s infatuation with rugby.
The physical contact, the mud, speed, competition. It was an attraction from the start…
“My brothers both played and everything they did, I wanted to do as well. My mum always said there’s no such word as ‘can’t’ so off I trotted and I loved every part of rugby.
“When coming home from being born, one of my brothers had friends called Daniel and Olly, so he put them together and called me Danolli rather than Danielle. I also had a book which was Olly Nolly Elephant, and I became Nolli Elephant because I was quite a chunky little kid. That’s it!”
“When we were younger we’d play in the garden, and we’d play full contact, so if I didn’t learn to sidestep I got smashed by a boy who was four years older than me!
“We were always active. My mum is a vet and so I was often out onto farms with her on school holidays.
“A good description of my mum is she unfortunately was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008/09, and eight months after she finished her chemotherapy, she decided she’d run the London Marathon.
“She thought if you’re going to do something like that, it was then that you could raise the most money. She’s a very inspiring woman and I think that drive and determination to get herself up there and achieve something was incredible.
“Her stubbornness has rubbed off on me!”
Now based in London with Wasps as part of the Tyrrells Premier 15s, Waterman spends her time away from rugby mainly with Coya, her nine-month-old Fox Red Labrador, and Simone, her Italian boyfriend of nearly three years.
Having scored 47 tries in 82 caps and represented England at four World Cups, Waterman’s decision to step away at a time of her choosing is all the more satisfying given she was almost forced to give it up three years ago.
In fact, she was a click of a keyboard button away from leaving the game.
An amalgamation of three injuries at the one time to her left knee led to the writing of a retirement email back in 2015. It was never sent but it’s a period Waterman regards as one of her lowest…
“It was the first time I was really challenged mentally.
“I really struggled and it was an injury I didn’t think I’d come back from. Initially the doctors didn’t think I would either.
“I ruptured my MCL and I had that repaired with a synthetic ligament because I’d done quite a lot of damage. Unfortunately I’d already injured that knee: my PCL had gone a few years before and my posterolateral corner had been injured, so my bio-mechanics were just completely shot because I had very little support in my knee.
“The way they got me back was just through severe strengthening. I had to rehab five times a day, seven days a week. Calves, quads, hamstrings. It was really hard and it took its toll. The mental torment of getting through that was very difficult.
“It took me five months to walk down the stairs. It was a gruelling process.
“And I think for anyone that’s been injured in a team sport, you don’t get to do what you enjoy doing, but you also don’t get to hang out with your mates. The reason I play rugby is because I enjoy the friendships, I enjoy the camaraderie of being part of a team. So when you’re not part of that, it’s seriously hard. You naturally isolate yourself because you want to get better and don’t want to be a sap on the team.
“I did write a retirement email. It took me so long to make any progress I just thought I was never going to make it back to be that player again. And I’d had enough. I didn’t know what I was doing it for.
“It’s never going to change my life financially, but it’s not about that. I hadn’t sent the email because I needed to be sure. I spoke to my dad, who has always been there throughout my career, and he said: ‘Look Nolli, you’ve achieved everything, you don’t need to do it anymore’, but my instant reaction was: ‘Of course I have to make it back.’
“I needed to establish what was my why? If I could understand that, I could put myself into it and keep going. It came down to the fact that I didn’t want to give up. I wasn’t ready to give up. I enjoy it too much.
“It was very, very difficult and I was so lucky that the medics were also incredible people. They understood me as a person. They said: ‘We’re just going to get you back to being and moving like a normal person. If you want to take a step onto the rugby field again, fantastic, if you don’t that’s fine too’.
“That took the pressure off: not rehabbing me to become an international, rehabbing me so that I can have a normal life again.
“It taught me a lot. Everyone looks at the challenging times in your career as negatives and moments to forget, and yeah there are moments that aren’t great to relive, but actually what it taught me as a person as much as a player was a lot. I appreciated the friendships and the fun, and recognised all the people around me who just wanted to make me happy again.
“I knew I was never going to be the same with my left knee because of how much it was restricting me. It was a tough one to comprehend. I did a lot of work with a psychologist about understanding that if you break something you never actually make it back exactly the same, you just make it into something new.
“That mindset of becoming something different, and being okay with that took time, especially as a 31-year-old.
“I enjoyed every minute I was in a white shirt and on a rugby field after that because I appreciated exactly how much it meant. You do when you think it’s going to be taken away from you.”
Were it not for serious injuries, Waterman would almost certainly have eclipsed 100 caps. In addition to the complications of her left knee, she has broken her cheek in three places – in her first game back from that knee injury no less – and ruptured the ACL in her right knee.
She also severed the tendons in her foot when dropping scissors after cutting flowers given to her when leaving a job running a national rugby academy because of persistent injuries – unlucky would almost do her no justice.
Since making her debut against Ireland at Thomond Park in 2003 as an 18-year-old, Waterman worked a series of jobs alongside playing at the top of her sport.
She has worked in a bar, managed a restaurant, done supply work, worked as a school sports coordinator, worked in education, ran the aforementioned rugby academy, spent three years as a professional player between 2014-2017 ahead of Sevens and XVs World Cups and most recently has been carving out a career in the media.
While the women’s game has undoubtedly come a long way since Waterman’s debut, there are still many more steps to take…
“Going forward, players have to be able to do just rugby and not have to balance everything in their life.
“It’s really hard and the requirements of international sport are incredible in the female game – the athleticism, the time invested.
“At times, I found it too hard to balance my life. I was investing a lot into the future of all these young players but forgetting about my own future.
“You’re not going to get the best athlete out of someone if they’re burning the candle at both ends – working and playing.
“But frustrating isn’t the right word. Because of RFU funding, last year was the first year there was a set of minimum standards. Every team has a paid coach, strength and conditioning support, physios, analysts. All the games are videoed. That has never happened in the women’s game across every single team.
“From a playing perspective, we understand where we’re at and it’s our responsibility to make the product really good. To make the most of all the support we have and showcase that actually we’ve gone that far forward, if we start to support players on a semi-pro basis, it’s only going to get even better.
“It’s a starting point. Do I think it needs to change? Yes. And there’s a responsibility for everybody in that. It’s not just the RFU paying the money, it’s the clubs providing a good programme, it’s the players buying into the programmes they’re given, it’s about supporters of the game getting to matches, actually filling out grounds and providing social media content.
“The RFU and the media are the main pillars that people look at but there’s also a lot of people in between that have a role and responsibility to transform the female game. And actually talk about it. Don’t be afraid to get involved.
“We need to change the advertisement of the women’s game. Making sure people are very, very aware of what’s happening, and not just on the day, but before so they can plan.
“Some people’s excuse is the car park is closed. That isn’t an excuse to miss a Test match in my opinion. There needs to be fan engagement in a different way and it needs to happen as early as possible.
“I don’t think the excuse of logistics is a good enough one.
“A lot of Wasps fans sent me really nice messages during the Six Nations because their proud of Wasps, they’re proud of me being a Wasp and proud of me playing for England. So the next step is their proud of me playing for Wasps and coming to support our team as well.”
With international rugby now a thing of the past, does Waterman see an end-point to her club career yet?
“No, it’s not my last year. There’s always three things I ask regarding whether I’ll carry on – Am I enjoying it? Am I playing at the standard that I set for myself and team sets within the squad? And am I adding value to that team? If I have all those things, that’s the reason I’m playing.
“And I get all of that at Wasps. I love it. I love the environment, I love the girls. The only challenge as a senior player is that it’s harder to do all the training and you’ve got to be motivated and to want to do it. But I do.
“There is a yin and a yang. There’s a big wide world out there and I’ve got a life away from rugby I need to look at and I also want to have a family at some point. And as a female, I actually have to do the having a baby side!
“Away from rugby, I’m building my career and Giselle [Mather, Wasps director of rugby] is very aware of that and she wants to support my future as well as me wanting to support the future of the club.
“From a media and commentary perspective, there’s an opportunity for more females in the game and I’m passionate about showcasing our knowledge, tactical understanding and analysis.
“You have to start at the bottom and that requires real vulnerability. It’s only been 30 odd years that elite women’s rugby has even been played in this country, it just put it into perspective where we’re at. And I’ve been part of half of that.
“I’d love to be a part of taking the female side of the game to a different level.”