CAPTAIN Siwan Lillicrap believes professional contracts will allow Wales to make strides in World Cup year.

The Welsh Rugby Union has announced that full-time deals will be offered to female players for the first time.

The governing body will put forward up to 10 deals in World Cup year with up to 15 retainer contracts, while there will also be match and training fees.

The contracts are currently being drawn up and will include a set of performance criteria and standards that the chosen players will be expected to meet, with the deals starting from January 1.

Wales take on Japan, South Africa and Canada, in Cardiff this month and are building towards next year's World Cup in New Zealand.

Captain Siwan Lillicrap said: "As players, we feel this is the best model for us at this stage. It's a structure that gives us an opportunity to prepare for the Rugby World Cup in a better place.

"It will allow some of our players to commit to being professional athletes and also take charge of certain tasks on behalf of the team, for example around analysis, and others to make decisions around their personal circumstances that will allow them to train and recover in a more manageable way so that we can make strides forward as a group."

Wales are playing catch-up in the women's game with a lack of investment leading to several disappointing Six Nations campaigns.

Nigel Walker, who was appointed as WRU performance director last summer, believes the contracts are pivotal to growing the game.

"We are committed to making the women's programme one of the best in the world and this announcement is a first but major step in the right direction," said the former Wales winger.

"The players have had a key role to play in this process to date and we feel this is the best way to make real gains on the world stage in the short and longer term.

"The players and coaches will now get on with the job in hand of preparing for three exciting autumn international matches before the first set of contracts are offered to the players who, the coaches feel, have the most potential to be as competitive as possible at next year's Rugby World Cup. I'm optimistic about what can be achieved in the next 12 months."

The WRU have also announced "further staff appointments around performance lifestyle advice, psychology and other sciences", invest and have pledged to develop the age-grade structure for female players.

Wales host Japan at Cardiff Arms Park on Sunday (kick-off 5pm).