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Does women's rugby need more male allies?

By Lucy Lomax
Dejected Ireland players, from left, Beibhinn Parsons, Dorothy Wall and Eimear Considine after the Women's Six Nations match between Ireland and France (Photo By Sam Barnes/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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It’s a question which comes up time and time again. As soon as another incident of discrimination or inequality happens in the women’s game, the question flares up and reignites in my head. Does women’s rugby need more support from men’s players?

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I’m talking about the men’s professional players who have been supported throughout their careers, on player pathways from an early age, through academies, up to the highest level, with all the coaching, physio and S&C support they could possibly wish for, who (for the most part) make a decent living. Do they have a duty to help the wider rugby community, to speak up for those in less fortunate positions?

My argument would be, yes of course they do.

Just to be clear, this article isn’t a dig at men who play the game at the elite level, who work as hard as anyone else. It’s a discussion around whether the women’s game needs their support (100% yes) and whether or not men’s players actively support the women’s game and if not, then why?

Let me ask you this: If you saw something out of order in your line of work, would you stand up and point it out, support the victim(s), criticize your employer, even if it didn’t directly involve or impact you? What if this wrongdoing went against your values as a person? Or stank of injustice or inequality?

In the rugby world, it appears this doesn’t happen.

I say this as history has shown that the majority of males during their playing careers do not engage with issues in the women’s game, full stop.

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Take the recent incident for example, when Connacht Women’s changing facilities were located by a dumpster at Energia Park, with reports of rats running around, ahead of their televised interpro clash with Ulster. To my knowledge not one Connacht Men’s player in the days after personally came out to publicly comment or show any reaction.

Or for instance, in the wake of the #IAmEnough movement (after Ireland Rugby and Canterbury used models to promote the launch of their women’s jersey rather than members of Ireland’s own women’s team), it was eerily quiet on the social media channels of men’s players yet again.

And ask yourself, how much public support have former Wales players campaigning to the WRU to reinstate the women’s elite performance pathways had from former or current Wales Men’s players? From asking around and researching online it appears not a lot. This doesn’t mean that the players aren’t fully backing the petition privately but in a world where public pressure seems to be the best way of influencing and getting results, in a scenario where change doesn’t appear to be happening through the current means, could you not lend a hand with a tweet of encouragement?

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I understand you may not want to outwardly criticise your employer, but for an issue so obviously affecting the game in your country, when Wales Women have not won a game in two years, how can they be silent?

I’m not trying to paint all male players with a wide brush stroke, I’m merely pointing out that the majority just don’t engage.

Worcester Warriors player Stef Evans and founder of the #ICare social media campaign, (launched after negative comments arose online about apparently no one caring that the 2021 Women’s Six Nations was being postponed) suggested a reason for this: “The silence that we so often feel from the men, it’s easy to think they don’t care but I feel like the vast majority of silence comes from them half not knowing that it’s happening (discrimination) and the other half thinking that it’s not their place or they don’t know how to communicate their support.

“The experiences I had from launching the #ICare campaign meant that I found myself having a lot of conversations with men’s players who became aware of the campaign and expressed support to me, and a lot did so publicly, but some chose to tell me privately.

“When I asked some of them why they’d DM’ed me instead of posting support publicly, they said they weren’t sure if it was their place to say anything, which makes a lot of sense. One told me he knew we didn’t need validation from the men and didn’t want it to come across like that, and he’s correct on that, but I think there’s a way that male players can support us publicly that doesn’t come across like that.

“The vast majority of the male players that I know and I’ve met in my career have been incredibly supportive and seem to have a lot of respect for the game we play, but I don’t think that always gets communicated to the wider community in a public way.”

Perhaps players may be more comfortable with wading into an argument or topic of discussion when they’re retired and not tied to clubs or when the topic at hand applies more directly to them, such as when they have young daughters or sport playing spouses.

Take for example Johnny Sexton’s reply to questions around Connacht’s interpro incident (commenting only when prompted by journalists), he said: “I’ve got two young daughters that I hope will be involved in sport as they grow older and I hope that they’ll be looked after as I have been throughout my career.” With the classic get-out-of-jail comment “I don’t know the ins and outs” added on.

I assume he’s referring to the ins and outs of the particular situation he’s being asked about but I actually find this a wholly lazy response. Look at the bigger picture! If players really want to make a difference and create change for future generations, especially when their own daughters may be impacted, if I had a platform and influence as large as his, perhaps one could suggest he learn the “ins and outs” if we are to see improved treatment of women and girls in the sport in his country.

There seems to be a common trend that players tend to think more deeply and interact more when they have something at stake. But how can we get men’s players more emotionally involved, invested, and engaged with issues within the women’s game regardless of their family situation?

Evans gave her experiences as a player. “One of the reasons could be, a lot of women’s and men’s teams from the same club play at different locations, they don’t overlap training times and do not share the same facilities. This happens a lot in union, even internationally.

“We need to encourage men to be more aware of other areas that’s affecting rugby and to not be afraid to speak out and use their voices and platforms to draw attention to issues.

“They could publicise when a women’s match is, or let it be known that they themselves watch and enjoy the women’s game. Perhaps they don’t realise but men’s players have a completely different audience and reach than players like I do.”

Victoria Rush, Content Producer at O2 and founder of women’s rugby’s #IAmEnough movement said: “For men’s players, the hurdles in rugby aren’t the same. They often have a more linier path from school to their clubs and up to pro level and then for England. There are very few rugby hurdles there, so they can’t emphasise with the barriers in front of women’s players.

“They’ll look at things from their own perceptive, you can only work off your own experiences. You don’t know unless you’ve been through it. On social media we’re good at blaming and I don’t blame them, players aren’t given any opportunity to understand, perhaps because women’s clubs aren’t telling them.”

So, does it lie with the women’s teams to educate the men and make them aware of their struggles?

Rush believes change can come through placing more pressure on clubs and brands. “We need to make it a non-negotiable that clubs and brands promote the women and men’s game equally. There’s really simple things male players and clubs can do for the game such as promotion on social media.

“For example, Danny Care shared information about Harlequins Women’s Premier 15s Final against Saracens last season, which was an enormous step to help promote the game and cost him nothing. Paolo Odogwu gave over his Instagram account to England 7s and Wasps player Meg Jones for International Women’s Day last year. It’s really simple things but helps bring home the message that women play the sport too and helps to normalise it.”

While we’re on the topic of good examples of support, credit to former Ireland and current London Irish player Sean O’Brien for his recent show of support to the Ireland women’s team after they missed out on World Cup qualification.

Or Joe Marler’s recent tweet calling out the archaic views of former football referee Mark Clattenburg on talkSPORT after he commented about female officials finding the career path of refereeing difficult due to having children.

This type of support show camaraderie, costs nothing and is what I believe the game needs to see more of.

You might ask what difference this showing of support makes?

It may be depressing to hear that incidents such as the changing facilities at the interprovincial championships are not uncommon or unfamiliar to even international women’s players, which make you think that decision makers in key roles, whether they’re not the exact same person making each decision each time, all likely think the same- prioritize the men’s, think about the women second. Whether they’re actively aware of their bias or not is another matter.

But what the men’s players seem to not understand, is the influence they could have on decision makers by speaking up. A tweet, a comment on Instagram, a quick word to a journalist- their followers will soon pick it up, as will the wider media and it will get shared with a different and almost certainly wider audience. Awareness builds pressure. When it’s someone different beating the drum, the noise sounds different.

Perhaps it’s naïve to think that the odd tweet from a well-known men’s player would make a difference but if the siren of support for the women’s game rang loudly enough and the approach changed en masse perhaps at least then we might see the tide turning.

Perhaps it’s a case of mentioning in a team talk or at the captain’s run that the women’s team is playing at the weekend, with no obligation to act but just to place it in players’ minds, in their subconscious, the least it would do is increase awareness. We don’t just want lip service, we want players actually invested but increasing their awareness is a start. You can’t be part of the solution unless you know the problem.

In my opinion the above suggestion would need to come from someone already invested in the women’s game, in a position of knowledge and influence at a club- an ally to the women’s game.

As frustrating as it is, it’s not a blame game. It appears the onus could be on women’s clubs to find that male ally, to help educate and inform the men’s sides. We need more symbiosis between teams at the same club to get awareness out there and although coverage is increasing through wider media outlets, we need to gorge out a better communication channel with the men playing the game if we want to see change. Some clubs are already better at this than others, Bristol Bears seem to have a good thing going on this front.

I’m sure supporters, coaches, players and all who are involved in the women’s game would agree, when an incident crops up highlighting just how far we have to go to catch up with the men’s game, to not hear the deafening silence we’ve become accustomed to in the aftermath, would be a big step forward.

If inequality or injustice happened in your line of work, how would you react, would you speak up?

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