October 24, 2021

Women’s rugby is growing fast so now is the time to invest even more

Great strides have been made but the financial side is still lagging way behind the men’s game and solutions are needed
On the face of it women’s rugby has entered a brave new world. Almost everywhere you look there are emerging role models, from pioneering referees and executives to talented players eager to make it at the highest level. When England’s impressive captain, Sarah Hunter, spoke last week about the 2022 World Cup being a potential game-changer for her sport she did so fully aware of the vast leaps already taken over the past decade.

For anyone who loves the game it should be great news that, finally, rugby has made genuine advances on inclusivity. Double-header club fixtures alongside the men, as at Wasps in Coventry on Sunday, are now fashionable and the athleticism of the best women players compares favourably with some of their perspiring male counterparts. The promotional kudos and family vibe to be had from a successful women’s team is increasingly prized. And yet.

Peek below the surface and it soon becomes apparent how much of the heavy lifting is being done by a tiny handful of individuals whose workload, in any other industry, would be classified as insane. Take Wasps’ women’s director of rugby, Giselle Mather. Her list of coaching and managerial responsibilities is already dauntingly long, yet she is the women’s squad’s solitary full-time staff member.

To cap it all Wasps’ women’s side are now training one day per week at the club’s gleaming new training base in Henley-in-Arden, near Warwick. Guess who is even driving the players up in a minibus from west London and then back again long after dark? Their resident superwoman Giselle, of course.

Can you imagine Eddie Jones jumping behind the wheel and personally chauffeuring his players to the Midlands as well as coaching a keynote session, dealing with a thousand and one other issues and then getting home late to try and pick up the threads of a busy family life? Mather is not the sort to make a fuss – she has instigated a firm “no whinging” policy as her squad embrace their new ‘double life’ – but the occasional eye-roll is entirely understandable.

Because, as she is keenly aware, the women’s club game stands at the same crossroads as their male counterparts did back in 1996. Get it right and, with a fair wind, women’s pro rugby could fly. Falter now, either through lack of funding or vision, and it could all come crashing down. There are still plenty enough examples of blinkered sexism – Irish provincial players being told to get changed outside by the rubbish bins in Dublin last month, for instance – out there to underline the range of obstacles still to be cleared.

The players also cannot fudge their employment dilemma indefinitely. Mather’s squad contains only three full-time players, with the majority being career-juggling part-timers. “I’ve got doctors, I’ve got engineers,” says Mather, who herself played in an era when England squad members bought their own kit and paid for their own travel. “We’re all flirting with professionalism and teetering on the edge of it but everybody is really having to dig deep to make it happen. Is that sustainable as human beings? Can the athletes access all the extra training they need to do and still pay their bills?”

These are pertinent questions that both women players and their governing bodies are actively discussing right now. Wasps, Exeter, Bristol, Harlequins and Saracens are among the forward-looking Premiership clubs already committed to the cause with others aiming to catch up but, cautions Mather, there is a stark bigger picture. “The women’s game is progressing really fast but the financial side of it is still struggling. Money is coming into the game but nowhere near enough for them to live off. What’s demanded of the players isn’t yet being matched by the salaries.”

So what happens next? More terrestrial television exposure would help, clearly, and attract more sponsorship interest. Next month’s two England v New Zealand women’s Tests on BBC2, hopefully, will further spread the gospel that Mather and others have been preaching for years.

“These people are incredible human beings and role models. It’s just about making them more visible. Once that happens, then sponsorship will come into the game at a much higher level. You can see what’s happened in women’s football. Women’s rugby could be so much bigger. People come up to me going: ‘Oh my God, it’s amazing.’”

Mather has plenty more proactive suggestions, not least synchronising the British and Irish fixture calendars. Sunday was the first time this season she has had all her players available – and for the only time until mid-December – because the fixture list of the Allianz Premier XVs, founded five years ago, currently only aligns with the Red Roses’ programme rather than for GB sevens or Irish, Scottish or Welsh squad members. More touch rugby in schools is also on her wishlist.

“PE teachers can be terrified of the contact stuff … I get that, but we don’t need to start that side of things too early. There is no other sport a girl can play where she can pick up a ball and keep running with it until someone stops her. It’s so much fun.”

Then there is simplifying the laws, which Mather feels would help men and women alike. Having sampled a slightly less set-piece oriented game when Covid necessitated a few temporary rule tweaks last season, she has already experienced the benefits. “It was a dream. Ball in play was higher over 70 minutes than it was for an 80-minute game with all those scrums. As a sport – and not just for the women – we need to make it easier for Joe Bloggs to understand, easier to play and easier for the game to flow.”

And before hopping back into her minibus, the tireless Mather has one last pithy observation to make to all and sundry. “We’re half the population. The idea of women not understanding the offside rule is so archaic … it’s cool for females to like and enjoy their sport now. Yes, we’re in a tricky time but we’ve just got to keep working through it to get the sport to where we ultimately dream it could be.” Money may be tight but upping their investment in women’s rugby could be the best decision today’s administrators ever make.