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Seeing both sides: Understanding the RFU's decision on trans participation

By Matt Merritt
(Photo by Catherine Ivill/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

On Friday 29th July, the RFU announced that trans women would no longer be able to take part in full contact women’s community rugby, a decision that was met with a heated response on social media both by those in favour of it and those who rallied against a decision that seemed to go against the union’s stated intent to be a fully inclusive sport.


The intent to vote on the issue and the recommendation to remove trans women from women’s rugby was announced a week earlier and immediately a groundswell of voices within women’s rugby spoke out against the plan.

This decision was made partially on the back of what the RFU have labelled an extensive, game-wide survey, however multiple clubs who are impacted have stated they were not contacted to participate, which brings into question both the method of the survey and the intent behind it.

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The deciding panel also reviewed detailed research on the physiological differences between those assigned male and female at birth and the effects of puberty on them. Important information to be sure, but there is no suggestion that this included any research that was not already available in 2020 when the RFU went against World Rugby’s guidance to continue to allow trans women to take part on a case-by-case basis.

The research most commonly shared on social media also lacks any content on the impact of those assigned male at birth transitioning – anyone registering under the previous case-by-case basis would need to show their testosterone levels have been under 5 nanomoles per litre for 12 months.

Bearing in mind it takes considerable time to reduce from a male average of between 10 and 35 noml, so a commitment of more than two years is required to come down to this level for many trans women.

Ultimately, the reason given for the decision was that there was inherent risk in allowing trans women to continue to play against cis women, a point that is certainly valid, but ignores the huge risk inherent in simply playing full contact rugby.


Considering the tragedy of Siobhan Cattigan’s death, player safety is rightly in focus and for this reason a number of people, such as former player and pundit Brian Moore and former England full back Danielle Waterman have supported the decision.

Equally it’s easy to make the case that the research that is publicly available is fundamentally lacking without data on trans women. The decision also comes at a time when transgender people are facing increased attacks in the media and online.

As such there has also been a lot of support given to keeping trans women in the game, notably from current England back row Poppy Cleall and former Red Roses prop Sasha Acheson.


Acheson has already started plans for trans-inclusive training sessions to show trans women they are still welcomed within the game. Her defiance in the face of the decision has been a rallying call for other players, clubs and supporters to show the affected women that they will not be forgotten.

There are, or more accurately were, seven registered trans women rugby players in the English game, all playing for community clubs, and all welcomed by their teammates with open arms. They had gone through a physically and mentally demanding process to make themselves eligible to play and despite several people looking into it, no recorded cases of injuries caused by these players (or previous trans women rugby players) have been found.

The RFU have apparently reached out to try and keep them involved in the game – effectively telling them they are not welcome to play in or against women’s teams, but they can do their admin if required.

What I find most disturbing is the lack of compassion for these women. They have had one of their few safe places taken away from them and so few people commenting, regardless of which side of the argument they support, seem to have thought about how they – and other trans women in the wider rugby community – must feel.

For me rugby has always been somewhere where anyone can feel welcome and, even assuming this decision was made with the best intent, it has made the sport seem less welcome for some of the most ostracised members of society. It has resulted in further abuse for those standing up for trans rights and it feels like a backwards step.

It was only 31 years ago that the first women’s World Cup took place – an event made possible by a few passionate women, not by unions or governing bodies – nobody thought women’s sport would gain the traction it has and as it continues to grow difficult subjects will have to be dealt with.

I firmly believe that this is a misstep and that it will be put right in the fullness of time.


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