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The strange middle ground women's rugby finds itself falling into

By Stella Mills
Claire Purdy playing for England /Getty

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Women’s rugby is often cited as one of the fastest growing sports on the planet, but is it growing in the right direction?

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I sat down with World Cup winner and ex-England International, Claire Purdy, to find out more about what has been and what we can look to expect in the future.

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During Purdy’s time, rugby was largely considered a hobby; something that was done alongside a full-time career. Luckily for her, her employer understood what she needed and facilitated long term sabbaticals to ensure she could take extended periods of time to focus on the World Cup. Despite what happened on the pitch, Claire always knew she had a job to go back to.

“If something went wrong, like a big injury, I always knew I had a career to fall back on, and most of my teammates had the same, whereas now, the girls are starting so young that rugby is the main, and only thing in their life, so they don’t necessarily have that security”.

Thanks to developments in player pathways, and an increased focus on recruitment, players are starting out at a much younger age. At first glance, this seems like a positive development, players becoming involved at a younger age could result in more time spent growing skills and gaining experience. Thus, resulting in an endless realm of elite talent as players move through the system.

However, Purdy explained this might not be as positive as it seems: “Most players coming into the England set up now are fairly young, they have aspirations to be a professional rugby player and so channel everything they have into this, which is great, but I hope for them that they have considered a plan B.”

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Many would assume that the natural step following a rugby career, albeit limited for women, would be to move into coach or commentary. This isn’t always an option.

“What happens in 10 years’ time when these players retire, and they are faced with starting a career outside of rugby. We have seen a few players move into commentary roles or coaching positions, but these opportunities are limited.”

What we are beginning to see in women’s rugby is this bizarre limbo. Female players are considered professional; however, they are not afforded the usual benefits which should come as part of the package with any full-time, professional career.

Some may suggest that this is no different to the men’s game, where their playing careers are short in nature, with many also retiring with nothing to go to. To that I would argue that male players can often afford to set aside a nest egg for their retirement, because of how much they are paid in comparison to their female counterparts. It is also important to bear in mind that the opportunities offered for commentary and media appearances are incomparable between male and female players.

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There are too many examples to show how the game is stuck in this strange middle ground. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems as if it is growing and moving in the right direction. However, from within, the same issues which were rife at the beginning are still plainly evident.

Critics have suggested players are now able to reap sponsorship and branding deals as another revenue of income, seemingly this is something which has evolved since Purdy’s time.

Speaking on the sponsorship side of things she mentioned: “At that time, we were not showered with sponsorships, people just didn’t know who we were. As players we needed to leverage the England shirt to our advantage, but we just couldn’t due to conflicts of interest, it was really difficult.”

This seems to have changed, with some of the England girls now being able to build their personal brand by associating themselves with different companies. For example, last year Sarah Bern, Shaunagh Brown and Zoe Harrison accepted sponsorship contracts with Umbro to become the first set of ambassadors for the sport. This is great – but don’t be fooled, a branding deal doesn’t bring in nearly enough income to pay the bills.

 

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The amount of dedication it takes to be chosen for the England squad is huge, players must remain fully focused on their performance to ensure they are selected to represent the country.

Reminiscing on how much the shirt meant to her, Purdy shared a bittersweet memory: “I remember I turned up to Twickenham to train, a few days after losing at the 2010 World Cup, and the security guard just looked at me and said, “What are you doing here, didn’t you just lose”, I walked past, got on the treadmill and just remember crying my eyes out.”

Playing in an England shirt means the world to these women, but should it have to cost them their world too?

Looking ahead to the future of the Allianz Premier 15s, multiple clubs have now publicly come out to suggest they will be offering professional setups to young, budding rugby players. However, it’s important for the clubs to explain exactly what “professional” means. To me, if you are a professional you are considered an expert, therefore you should be rewarded accordingly. It is not yet clear specifically what will be offered to players at these clubs. Will they be on a salary? Will they have access to 5* training facilities and coaching staff? Will they have their expenses paid for? None of that is clear.

What is clear, however, is an obvious uncertainty surrounding the term “professional”. For a word that is constantly banded around in the sport, it comes with a massive amount of confusion.

Will we see any clarification over what the term, and its obvious consequences, mean? Who knows?

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The strange middle ground women's rugby finds itself falling into

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