The number of women and girls playing rugby union is increasing, but Fiona Tomas highlights the fact that the sport’s own rule book demonstrates inbuilt inequalities in how the sexes are treated and how there is still work to be done to prevent female players from being held back
Caitlin Clark still remembers the sinking feeling of being held back on the rugby pitch. She was 12 – the age boys and girls in England stop playing mixed rugby – and confused as to why she was suddenly not being treated like the boys she had grown up with at Reading RFC.
Boys were allowed to play on a pitch nearly double the size the ones girls could, their matches were 10 minutes longer and they were allowed to push in the scrum. Boys were also allowed to “hand off ”, but girls were not deemed strong enough.
“I felt put down,” reflects Clark (pictured), 17, an aspiring England rugby player. “I actually questioned whether rugby was a sport I should be doing. It was almost as if us girls weren’t worthy of playing because the rules were – and still are – so different, especially physically. Things were and still are so simplified for girls at that level.”
Clark’s frustration did not stop there. She was bigger than most others in her under-13 group yet trained with nine-year-old girls nearly half her size. Unlike boys, who are allowed to play up an age group, the rules did not allow her to move into the under-15s.
Last year, the discrepancy in these rules prompted Lily Hayward, 12, of Bristol, to write to the Rugby Football Union asking for girls to play the same rules as boys. “If you think about it,” she innocently penned, “the coaches of girls’ teams are also not being challenged as they are not showing what they are fully capable of.”
Telegraph Sport sifted through the RFU rules and regulations in the grass-roots game and found a handful of inconsistencies between boys’ and girls’ rugby. Along with the rules that stunted Clark’s development, girls’ kicks are expected to travel less far, and only three girls can form a maul (boys can have unlimited numbers).
Perhaps most startlingly, the disparity in the rules inadvertently implies that girls are not as strong as boys. Forward positions are already handed to 12-year-old boys in a scrum, who are singled out as “competent and confident” and positions in all three rows fully marked out. But their female counterparts are simply labelled as “players”, with limited positions identified.
The RFU told Telegraph Sport the “building blocks” for rules in girls’ rugby corresponds to its three recognised age brackets (under-13, 15 and 18 level), contrary to the seven that exist for boys. It also stressed a review of the girls’ age banding was under way, adding that the “girls’ game does not currently have the critical mass of players to sustain single age bands”.
Yet figures show the number of girls playing the game at under-13 level has increased by more than a quarter since 2017, while those in the under-15s has risen by nearly two thirds. While this suggests girls are not being deterred from dumbed-down rules, the rise of popular “minis” sections across rugby clubs for girls aged nine to 11 can partly be attributed to the increase in those numbers.
Yet the consequences from holding teenage girls back do not go unnoticed. “It was a big leap from under-13 to under-15 level,” recalls Clark. “You go from playing on not even half a pitch to a full-sized one, to contesting scrums and line-outs. I can safely say it put a lot of girls off.”
Bridging this gulf comes at a time when teenage girls are experiencing the biggest bodily change during puberty: periods. Jess Bunyard, a rugby development officer at Huddersfield YMCA rugby club, goes as far as to call it a “fear factor” that affects participation levels.
She has set up a “red box” at her club in a bid to combat period poverty and remove one less barrier to girls’ playing rugby.
“Even though it’s only a cardboard box filled with tampons and sanitary towels, in a section of a kit shed, that’s a powerful statement in itself,” she says. “It’s ramming home the message that tampons and sanitary towels are seen as any other form of kit. The box is also seen by the male personnel at the club, so it’s talked about, just how we’re trying to get mental health talked about more among male players.”
The inequalities in rugby do not end at childhood either. It remains a talking point in the senior game.
Women’s teams in lower leagues are forced to follow the same rules as boys at colts level (under-17s and 18s), which includes reduced halves of 35 minutes and not pushing more than 1½ metres in a scrum.
“The RFU still thinks we’re a bunch of females bumbling around having a jolly old time trying men’s sport,” one women’s coach who oversees a lower-level female side said.
“The female rugby community is waiting for the RFU to realise that women and girls are just as capable as men and boys, but patience is starting to wear thin.”
In a statement, the RFU said:
“The regulations in place were developed to ensure player safety. As females generally came to the game later than their male counterparts, there were elements, such as the scrum, where there was a duty of care to new players. The same rule used to be in place at county level, and was removed as the standard of the competition grew. The women’s game is growing and as levels such as National Challenge Two have a mixture of more experienced players and new players – there is still a player-safety element to consider. We will be reviewing the adult women’s competitions, which will look at all aspects of the growth of the game and the playing opportunities needed to support that.”
A shift in the terminology used around women’s teams at elite level is seemingly masking examples of inequality further down. World Rugby has dropped the moniker “women’s” from next year’s World Cup in New Zealand. It will simply be known as the Rugby World Cup. Meanwhile, Worcester and Saracens have dropped “ladies” from their names for “women”.
But such empowering changes being made at a time the rule book is holding girls back on the rugby pitch is an uncomfortable reality.
BOYS Restart kicks must travel at least 10m GIRLS Restart kicks must travel at least 7m
BOYS Play 25-minute halves GIRLS Play 20-minute halves BOYS Can ‘hand-off ’ an opponent GIRLS Cannot ‘hand-off ’ an opponent BOYS Play on a pitch 5,400sq m GIRLS Play on a pitch 2,580sq m
BOYS Can contest for the ball with unlimited numbers in mauls and rucks GIRLS Contest for the ball but 2 players v 2 players BOYS Push in the scrum, with six players GIRLS Cannot push in the scrum, with five players