Un­equal games

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly -

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

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