Women's rugby: Players to be paid as England Sevens turn pro

England's top female rugby players will be paid for the first time as the Women's Sevens squad goes professional.

The Rugby Football Union is giving full-time contracts to 20 players.

They include 12 members of the squad that won the 15-a-side Women's Rugby World Cup in Paris earlier this month, beating Canada in the final.

England's World Cup-winning captain Katy Mclean, one of the players awarded a contract, described the deals as "fantastic news for the sport".

The RFU said the one-year contracts would be awarded on an annual basis.

All 20 contracted players will train full-time at Twickenham and at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford, starting in September.

They will compete in the 2014-15 IRB Women's Sevens World Series, at which England will attempt to qualify for the Rio Olympics on behalf of Great Britain.

Rugby sevens will be included at the Olympics for the first time in 2016, and the RFU said it had decided on a professional set-up in order to allow England to compete effectively against full-time opponents.

England's squad at the Women's Rugby World Cup in France was made up entirely of part-time players, including a plumber, Marlie Packer, and a vet, Sophie Hemming. All of the players trained in their spare time for no pay.

They won the tournament by beating Canada 21-9 in the final in Paris on 17 August, to become world champions for the first time since 1994.

England Women's Sevens - the 20 professionals

* Members of the 15-a-side Women's Rugby World Cup-winning squad

*Claire Allan (Richmond)

*Katherine Merchant (Worcester)

*Natasha Brennan (Richmond)

*Marlie Packer (Wasps)

*Rachael Burford (Thurrock)

Leanne Riley (Saracens)

Abigail Chamberlain (Richmond)

*Emily Scarratt (Lichfield)

*Heather Fisher (Worcester)

Emily Scott (Thurrock)

*Natasha Hunt (Lichfield)

Michaela Staniford (Wasps)

*Alexandra Matthews (Richmond)

*Danielle Waterman (Bristol)

Francesca Matthews (Richmond)

Joanne Watmore (Richmond)

Sarah McKenna (Saracens)

*Kay Wilson (Bristol)

*Katy Mclean (Darlington)

Amy Wilson-Hardy (Bristol)

Danielle Waterman, who scored one of England's two tries in the final, gave up her job at an RFU academy for 16-18-year-olds in Gloucester last November to focus on the World Cup.

She told BBC Radio 5 live: "These contracts haven't happened overnight. The RFU has been working towards this for at least as long as I've been involved with England, which is 11 years.

"It has cost a substantial amount of money to do it and the RFU is providing that support, which is brilliant."

Waterman and Packer have been awarded full-time contracts along with primary school teacher Mclean, who said: "This is fantastic news for the sport and exactly what we need as an England squad to continue to be at the top of our sport on a global scale."

In addition to their Sevens commitments, the full-time players will also be expected to play 15-a-side internationals and Women's Premiership rugby.

Their training programme, led by Sevens coach Simon Middleton and RFU head of women's performance Nicola Ponsford, will include strength and conditioning work, as well as medical, nutritional, lifestyle and psychological support.

Ponsford declined to reveal how much players would be paid, but told Radio 5 live that those giving up their jobs would receive adequate financial support.

She said: "The RFU doesn't disclose salaries, so we're not going reveal amounts. But we are going to work with every player to make sure everyone is sorted out financially and can focus on training.

"We want the players to be able to commit to this without having to worry that they're not going to make ends meet."

The development comes six months after the England women's cricket team announced it would be turning professional.

A total of 18 female cricketers were awarded professional contracts in May by the England and Wales Cricket Board.