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We can no longer excuse women's rugby players wearing men's kits

By Stella Mills
Jess Breach of Harlequins celebrates with teammates after scoring her sides first try during Big Game 13 (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

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What players wear matters. Rugby kit, from boots right through to shirts, is not unisex. Any female player who has played at grassroots level in oversized men’s kit will tell you it isn’t fun, so why are we still seeing this issue at the elite level of the game?

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Women need to be in kit that is specially designed for their job, you wouldn’t send a female firefighter into a blaze with protective gear that was 3 sizes too big, so why are we doing the this on the pitch?

Over Christmas, both Harlequins and Adidas where criticised across social media for their use of unisex kit at the Big Game 13, a double header which saw both the men’s and women’s squads run out at Twickenham. The kit, which was supposedly designed for both teams saw the women’s team run out in oversized ill-fitting shirts. Players even took to Twitter after the match to joke about playing in their “Khaki Dresses”.

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Often with women’s sportswear the “Shrink it and pink it” way of thinking is applied to design and development of kit. However, as Exeter’s Jess Thomas explains below, the size difference between props alone in the Premier 15’s highlights why this isn’t suitable. Women need kit that is specifically designed for them, and that takes into consideration not just the differences between men and women but the differences amongst women too.

To those who say the poor fitting kit should be overlooked, I would say that kit isn’t just a superficial item, its evocative of so much more for both the players and the audience. This isn’t about a piece of clothing, its bigger than that, its about basic respect for players and the wider game.

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The Big Game 13 was a career-defining moment for many players, players who would have run out at Twickenham for the first time live on BT Sport in front of a strong crowd. We shouldn’t be talking about the kit, but it’s a fundamental basic that unfortunately in this circumstance has been obviously overlooked.

This subsequent conversation doesn’t take away from the quality of play on show from both teams on the day, but it is an issue that we must acknowledge, discuss, and subsequently learn from.

When contacted for comment, Harlequins told RugbyPass: “Harlequins is glad to have seen both the Women’s and Men’s sides play in the official Big Game 13 jersey at Twickenham Stadium. The current jersey is manufactured in one fit, for both Men’s and Women’s teams by Adidas. The club is glad to confirm that as of next season, Harlequins Women will have a women’s fitted kit.”

I spoke exclusively to Sue Anstiss MBE, author and women’s sport activist.

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“The oversized kit took us back to a time when the women’s team played in hand me down men’s jerseys, and that just wasn’t a great advert for the sport to those tuning in for the first time,” Anstiss told RugbyPass. “The bit I love about rugby is the variety of strong and powerful women you get to see, and that gets lost when it’s put under one big jersey – it’s not comfortable or flattering. Some of them even had their sleeves rolled up, which doesn’t look good and proves the kit wasn’t technically adequate for the women.”

“I wanted to be so positive about everything in the Big Game 13, but then you see things like this and it’s hard to be.”

These issues also extend far beyond time on the pitch and into supporter wear. England Rugby released their women’s jersey to fans and came under heavy scrutiny for not offering the jersey in a male cut. This works both ways, as research has shown that men make up a heavy portion of women’s sports fans, therefore the products on offer need to cater for this. As the sport grows and interest develops, we must ensure that products created reflect the growing development of the fan base.

It seems this issue isn’t specific to women’s rugby and has indeed made its way into women’s football too, with one common theme: Adidas.

Arsenal’s Beth Mead took to Twitter to criticise the clothing company for a lack of women’s fit kit, the Tweet was later deleted but did prompt discussion among players and fans regarding the quality of women’s kit. Specifically, players explained how jackets in the FA Cup Final where only available in men’s sizing which subsequently made them look like a bag of potatoes.

For all of Adidas’s failings, they aren’t the only kit provider out there for women’s rugby stash. Ruggette RFC, founded by Premier 15’s player Stef Evans, specialises in female-specific rugby kit. The company is known for its well-fitting shorts, which feature a flat lay thick waistband and specifically designed variable leg openings which give full coverage to players whilst also looking great.

In a first, the brand designed a female-focused kit that could be worn by both men and women for the Bournemouth Sevens festival last summer. Olympian and Wasp’s player Abi Burton lead the team ‘Bryan’s Lions’ out and the complements of the kit kept flowing strong. It begs the question, if one company can do this and do it so well that it’s orders skyrocket the next day, why couldn’t the same be done for the Big Game 13?

 

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A post shared by Ruggette RFC (@ruggette_rfc)

Participation in women’s rugby is already restricted enough as it is, we do not need yet another factor to limit this participation.

Barriers into sport have never been so high, so I would urge every team from grassroots upwards, to speak and communicate with their players to ensure the kit they are expected to run out in is suitable for purpose. The days of wearing men’s hand-me-downs are over, so why are we still accepting it in 2022.

Times have changed and the management of the women’s game needs to keep pace.

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