Making the Hard Yards: Tackling the issues surrounding women’s rugby head on is not for the feint-hearted, as Jessica Stone discovers

March 2, 2007

When Sue Day, 34, first got into the sport she now captains for England, women’s rugby in schools was almost unheard of. Then the modified game of tag started showing up on playgrounds. “Historically, parents can be uneasy about their girls playing contact sports,” she says, “So tag rugby gives them the chance to get used to the idea gently.” It seems to be working. Now, more girls are giving rugby a chance and starting to play earlier.

Low participation is only one of the major issues facing women’s rugby and sport in general. Last year, UK Sport, in partnership with the British Olympic Foundation, launched The Women and Leadership Development Programme, a three-year initiative to build female leadership and maximise the potential for women in sport. The message was clear: to get more women at the forefront of sport, and to give them the support they need.

It’s a mission that resonates for the dedicated women who play and promote rugby for England with undaunted drive. Last year, they came second to New Zealand in the World Cup final by a very small margin. They are professional in play if not in pay: they all receive training but, unlike their male counterparts, still have to hold down a full-time job. The quality coaching is there at both international and club level, but the main contrast with the men is the time the women get to spend with those coaches.

Julia Hutton, RFUW Media Manager, acknowledges that women’s rugby is not a mainstream sport in England and that, while regional media representation is strong, they fall behind on national coverage despite solid performances. Men’s rugby is a fixture in the press, but it is difficult for the women to get column inches or network minutes without a special angle or event. “Coverage depends on how the team does,” she says, “And fortunately the England team are a very strong outfit.”

Hutton says they do quite well in television and interactive coverage but admit that they struggle buying into services. There’s the commercial value of the women’s game versus the men, hence the classic catch-22: reduced media coverage leads to insufficient viewership and vice versa.

In addition to consistent media coverage, women’s rugby simply needs more localised resources. Rosie Williams, managing director for RFUW, says scepticism still exists that women can’t play rugby well. “We need development officers on the ground to go and help schools choose rugby as a sport to deliver to girls.” She says teachers need to buy into the sport and possibly link into the current system in place for boys. This means more volunteers, more coaches and, in turn, more money. Day agrees. “It’s very difficult to grow the game without money and very difficult to get the money without the profile.”

Because they aren’t currently associated with a major sponsor, any available resources are channelled into developing their own brand, including the athletes. “For us it’s more important to be delivering the sport than chasing big-money sponsors,” says Williams.

RFUW are making positive strides in the right direction, and the industry is taking notice. This year, they are finalists in the Sport Industry Awards in the category of best promotion of a PR campaign by a governing body, up against the NFL, FA and UAFA. And for the first time ever, this year RBS is supporting the women’s Six Nations tournament, a move that puts the women’s tournament on par with the men’s.

Williams says that while England certainly get more opportunity than other European nations, advancement hinges on a need for more resources and a greater chance to show what the top-end players can do.

The women’s rugby team is not short of positive, athletic and well-educated role models like Sue Day. It’s just that more people need to know about her. Between daily training which includes strength, speed power and skill sessions, Day holds down a job as an accountant for KPMG. She wouldn’t have it any other way and tells girls considering the sport to go for it. The feeling of camaraderie is huge precisely because the sport is small, and everyone is welcome. “I’ve played a lot of sports, and the thing I love about rugby is that it does have all shapes and sizes. It’s a simple sport. Just you and the ball.”