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'If Owen Farrell suddenly Tweeted asking his followers to watch the women's game, they would immediately suspect he had been put up to it'

By Rachael Burford

Trending on RugbyPass

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In the last few weeks, women’s rugby fans have showed their support of the #ICare movement founded by Bristol Bears player Stef Evans, a call for women’s rugby fans to share the reason why they care about women’s rugby. It follows the #IAmEnough campaign of last year, which called out Ireland sponsor Canterbury for not using Ireland Women’s players to model their new kit, using models instead. These campaigns are great at garnering support, but for me, the conversation has to move on to what action we can take next. We have done the talking, now let’s use this support to make real change in women’s rugby.

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That’s exactly what Poppy Cleall did a couple of weeks ago. Poppy called out ProDirect Rugby for their inadequate representation of women’s rugby players on their social media, which forced ProDirect to not only respond, but they have since posted two photos of women’s rugby player on their Instagram feed, after months of no photos of women’s rugby players.

As soon as ProDirect shared the first photo of a women’s rugby player, thousands of people liked it, and lots of fans shared the post on their stories. We’re now at the point that it’s easy to say that you care about women’s rugby, everyone who follows women’s rugby cares. Now it’s about what we can do to make the women’s and girls’ game stronger for the younger generations.

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We need to consider women’s and girls’ needs right from the start, from things like training methods and nutrition supplements, to the accessibility of women’s and girls’ kit. It’s 2021, yet lots of women’s players are still wearing men’s kit. This might not sound like too big of a problem, but women have bigger bums and hips and we store our fat and muscle differently to men, so having kit designed for our shapes is so important. Playing in ill-fitting shorts or shirts is uncomfortable and doesn’t make rugby a welcoming environment for girls and women. There’s the saying ‘look good, feel good’, which is true for players as well. At England, we have had fitted women’s shirts for a number years, but I’m not sure about the shorts. One year we had female fitted shorts, but the night before a game we realised that they didn’t fit anyone. We had to get some of the men’s sizes to wear at the last minute, because the manufacture clearly had not used female rugby players to understand the size of our waists, legs and bums!

It’s a problem that starts at the grassroots level. The women’s team often wear the men’s hand-me-downs, and often girls turn up to rugby sessions with shorts and tops that hang off them because it’s just all too big. At Girls Rugby Club, we are talking to experts and brands who make things like equipment or clothing specifically for women’s rugby players, so we can really support women’s and girls’ rugby. Too often, when you go to buy rugby gear it’s only available in men’s sizes, which doesn’t send a good message to girls who want to play. Some teams do it well, for example the British and Irish Lions recently had girls model their rugby kit. Again, this might not seem like a big deal, but for young girls it reinforces the message that they are welcome in rugby.

The #ICare movement also sparked a conversation about the involvement of men’s rugby players in the women’s game. I think that while the men could do more to support the women’s game, we should be careful about how we ask men to speak up about women’s rugby. There’s absolutely no point in them doing so if it isn’t genuine. Take Owen Farrell for example, he rarely uses his social media, so if he suddenly Tweeted asking his followers to watch the women’s game, they would immediately suspect he had been put up to it. It’s much better when it is a genuine reaction. For example, a few months ago, one man Tweeted that no men’s rugby player would pay to watch women’s rugby. Within hours, the likes of Aaron Smith, Mike Friday, Sean O’Brien and Charlie Beckett all came out to say they do pay to watch the women play. That’s when men’s involvement is best: when it is a genuine reaction to a comment directed at them.

Similarly, Harlequins Men are always supportive of the women’s side, and when we hosted a Game Changer event, lots of them shared it on their social media. The men tend to have much bigger followings than us, so it’s really important that those followers see that women’s rugby exists and that it’s a positive thing. If young boys saw that women play rugby, and their favourite men’s player thinks it’s cool, then they’re not going to refuse to pass to the girls in their team. They’ll become fans of the women’s game because it becomes respected.

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I think there could always be more done to get men’s players to rally behind us and really show their support. The ‘one club’ approach that we have at Harlequins works to support women’s rugby, and we should look at this working both ways. Women’s players are often fans of the men’s sport and watch it, but it’s about cross-promoting all rugby games, as it will benefit us all in the end.

Tyrrells pull women's league sponsorship

(Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

While lots of grassroots clubs care enough about women’s rugby enough to have a women’s or girls’ section, often their actions lack the meaning behind the #ICare movement. I remember when I was coaching at a grassroots club, it was a real struggle to get the senior women’s and girls’ team the space on the pitch or equipment to train, as the men’s and boys’ teams were always given priority. If clubs invest in their women’s first team as they do with the men’s, suddenly the young girls in the club, their mums, sisters, and female friends will all feel welcome. That starts to generate other revenue and puts money behind the bar.

Lots of clubs are very traditional, and while full of great people, we need people who recognise the potential of women’s rugby, who know that there is a women’s Rugby World Cup happening this year, and for those people to organise events around it. From my experience, this doesn’t happen enough currently. Last year, I was coaching a girl’s rugby event at a rugby club during the Women’s Six Nations. The event finished just before England Women v Italy kicked off, but the bar closed at 5pm, which was the time of kick off. If they had planned to show the game after the training session, they would have taken money behind the bar and from food, as there were 80 girls there plus their parents. I don’t think these things are ever intentional, but it comes from a place of ignorance. Especially at a time when clubs need money more than ever, it’s such a wasted opportunity.

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The Rugby World Cup in September and October this year will be on early in the morning for UK fans, and I really hope clubs are allowed to open by then. If they open for the games, with breakfast ready and the bar open, people will come and watch. Even those who don’t follow women’s rugby will come if it means sitting with their friends in the rugby club. Plus, by the time the game is over it’s 11am, and every fan knows that’s an appropriate time to start drinking after an early morning rugby game!

If parents, girls and boys are all watching the women play, it causes a massive change in perception around women’s rugby. To get there, we need more action to make women’s rugby accessible, more genuine support from men’s players, and for clubs to truly get behind the girls at the grassroots level.

Check out the Girls Rugby Club website HERE.

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'If Owen Farrell suddenly Tweeted asking his followers to watch the women's game, they would immediately suspect he had been put up to it'

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