Last week, I virtually attended The Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards, an annual celebration of the best women across all sport. It was a good night for rugby union, with Barnes RFC player Zainab Alema winning the Vitality Grassroots Player of the Year award.

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Alema, who is affectionately known as ‘Bulldozer’ by her teammates (and called it in spite by opposition) is also a neo-natal nurse, mum of three children under four, and charity worker. I am yet to confirm if she actually sleeps at all, but I am thoroughly impressed by her. I left the virtual awards ceremony with a buzz; women’s sport has come so far in the past five years, and to have a women’s rugby player win an award was the cherry on top.

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FULL DOCUMENTARY: Going Pro – Saracens Women

But as the week went on, I began to worry that the coronavirus pandemic has caused irreversible damage to this progress. Women’s sport has failed to resurrect with the same intensity that it had before the pandemic. For months, after men’s sport came back, there was little (if any) women’s sport to watch on television. For women’s rugby, the Allianz Premier 15s is back, but fans can’t watch it on television. Fans of the league are left watching via Facebook, the dodgy links I mentioned last week, or just clips of sensational tries shared on social media.

In my column last week, I said how brilliant it was to have international women’s rugby on BBC Two, and how accessible it has become to watch. I’ve argued for better coverage of both men’s and women’s rugby because in the long term, rugby desperately needs more fans and players. But recent research from Sport England has left me concerned that despite the progress women’s rugby has made, and despite the better coverage, the women’s game will fall behind.

Sport England found that the ‘exercise gap’ between men and women expanded during the height of the pandemic to ten percent; ten percent more men were exercising than women. In fact, there are 313,600 fewer women than men who are regularly active in England. According to the same research, this exercise gap is due to women taking on more household responsibilities, as well as childcare and home-schooling, than men during the pandemic. There will be men shaking their heads at this point I’m sure, and this is not to say men do not have a role in household chores and childcare, but this is the anecdotal evidence provided to Sport England.

At the same time as women are becoming less active than men, there is also the worry that rugby, like most sports, is at great risk of losing a number of our grassroots players after a prolonged time away from the sport.

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Grassroots rugby is, like most things, allowed in various levels depending on where you live and train, but the rules are difficult to navigate. In Scotland, all levels of lockdown allow physically distanced training, but unrestricted and full contact training is not allowed, nor are friendly matches. In England, there are six stages on the RFU’s ‘return to rugby road map’ for the community game. At the moment, England is in stage one (or ‘A’ as the RFU calls it) which allows individual training with one other person, maintaining physical distance and no equipment sharing. In Wales, touch rugby matches between local clubs have just been sanctioned by the WRU, with some restrictions to training, including no contact or huddles. In Northern Ireland, all rugby below the elite level is suspended, and there is a five-stage return to rugby in Ireland similar to the British nations.

For someone new to the game, the idea of scrummaging or tackling – where social distancing is impossible – would be more terrifying than usual, even if no grassroots coach would seriously suggest this sort of training at the moment. For many, joining a new sport is just seen as an unnecessary risk.

Take these concerns about rugby on top of the research suggesting that women are less likely to exercise, and you’re left with a worrying image for women’s rugby at the grassroots level. There are many ways that clubs can help women come back to rugby and to recruit new female players. In my opinion, the best thing that clubs can do is make it entirely clear what training involves, including what the safety protocols are. The rules are confusing to navigate, and people in your area might not be sure if they are allowed to join in or not. If they are nervous, invite them to come and watch a session before they take part.

Clubs can do more to help with childcare for mums and dads too. I’ve seen some grassroots women’s teams have a childcare rota, where mums take it in turns to look after all children during a training session or can nominate a partner to come and help. One club told me they ‘employ’ the children as coaches, touch judges and referees to help out during training sessions. This is all so easy to do and can really help to make mums feel welcome at your rugby club, as well as make the little ones feel involved.

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One thing that I love about my club, Epping Upper Clapton RFC, is that I play with women whose husbands and boyfriends play for the men’s teams, and their children are involved in the junior section. To involve women in rugby, clubs need to make sure their club is as inclusive and accessible for women as possible.

We know that interest in the elite women’s game is growing. Rugby is not going to be the sport for all female fans, like it isn’t the sport for all men who enjoy watching rugby, but there are many who may just too be nervous to give it a go at the moment. If that’s you, please get in touch with your local rugby club. I’m yet to find a women’s team who turn down new players, we all desperately want more to join our game. You don’t need boots, a gumshield, or anything really. You can just turn up in any sportswear and trainers and give it a go. You might hate it, but you might just love it.

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