After sustaining an ACL injury in a match against Wales on Oct. 8th, professional international rugby player Charlie Willett has been left to cover most of the cost — around €10,000 — herself, despite having been told she would be covered by Rugby League Ireland. Willett has been forced to borrow thousands from friends and set up an online fundraiser to cover the shortfall.
Willett, who was a sports lawyer until she quit last summer to pursue rugby full time, asked about injury coverage prior to her first international match, which was against Italy in June of this year. Head Coach John Walley responded in a text "Yes, RLI will have player cover under their banner."
Four months later, on Oct. 8th, Willett was carried off the field screaming in pain with a fully torn ACL, two meniscus ruptures, and a partially dislocated knee. Even before she got her scans back, she knew she would need surgery, so she approached her coach at the end of the game.
"Then Walley said, 'I don't know about that, I don't think we're going to be paying.' I felt like my heart dropped through the floor. I was genuinely in shock, it was hard enough being injured so then I was thinking, 'Oh God, how am I going to pay for it?'"
The next day her worst fears were confirmed when she emailed Walley and RLI chairman Jim Reynolds to confirm that RLI were covering the full cost: she was informed that the insurance policy of the women's team capped medical expenses at €3500 and physiotherapy at €250.
Though Willett has private medical insurance, it doesn't cover injuries sustained professionally. She also explained in her post on GoFundMe that her union team the Exeter Chiefs "have supported my initial rehab process and will provide the necessary care post surgery", but "as this injury was sustained whilst playing for Ireland, Exeter Chiefs cannot assist further."
A non-complex ACL surgery can cost over €9000, and Willett's was complex; she was also unable to do her usual freelance work for weeks, losing about £2000.
Time was also critical for Willett, as the probability that the meniscus will have to be completely removed increases the larger the gap between an initial injury and surgery.
Willett scheduled surgery for Oct. 19th, without knowing whether it would be paid for; she describes the RLI board as taking a long time to respond to many of her emails.
When a board meeting was eventually called to discuss covering Willett's injuries, she was confident they would pay the whole cost. Instead they suggested RLI's covering €5000 and for the rest setting up a GoFundMe campaign 'in conjunction' with Willett.
At this point Willett had had enough; she borrowed £7000 from her boyfriend's parents and set up her own GoFundMe page. She also posted a video explaining her situation on TikTok, where it has been viewed over 350,000 times.
Willett has since raised over £14,000 on her GoFundMe page and the page is no longer currently taking donations, but she's concerned that her story is part of a larger issue.
"As a female athlete, you can kind of accept that you won't get paid like the men get paid, won't get the same level of facilities/accommodation/food/kit...but one thing I never thought I'd be stuck for is medical. They're asking girls to put their bodies on the line for their country, at quite a risk...The rugby community has been brilliant, I'm just kind of hoping that by speaking about it, that people realise the extent of women's rugby league and how we're treated. I'm incredibly lucky that I have a legal background, and I create content and that I have a platform and an audience. If this had happened to one of the other girls, I don't know that they would've got the same attention."
RLI said in an early response that "various accusations we have read and seen so far are inaccurate, have significant and crucial omissions, and contain highly misleading statements." It was also announced that RLI would release a statement Monday, but none appears to have been posted on the RLI website or any associated social media channels.