The real issues facing Women’s Rugby

Women's Rugby

In the past week Women’s Rugby has seen two pieces of big news. One lead to the creation of #IamEnough and got everyone in a tizzy. The other has snowed under. One is a very real problem in Women’s rugby, the other at first sight a cosmetic issue.

Paul Peerdeman delves a little deeper into the real issues facing women’s rugby.

The not-so-superficial truth of Women’s Rugby

For several days now female players have been posting pictures of themselves in playing or training kit with the hashtag #IamEnough. They are doing this in response to Canterbury of New Zealand using models to present the Irish women’s jersey, which will be officially presented in October, after lockdown caused delays. Canterbury has since apologized for this action.

It is a rather superficial issue that has got everyone wound up. After all, Canterbury is there to make money off the sale of jerseys. They probably looked at their market data and figured this was the best way to do things. It is very likely most women who will buy those jerseys are women who want to look good at a Men’s national team match, in the stadium or in the pub. It makes sense to use models then.

Yet, this is what initially gets so many players upset. And it is rather a superficial issue to worry about. Behind it is a much deeper problem though. And it is an issue that many women rugby players almost unconsciously mention and even continue when they talk about this.

The deeper issue is with the IRFU here. It is not just the IRFU though, it is an almost general issue. According to World Rugby’s 2018 statistics, over a third of all players in the world are now women. Another third are youth players. Carrying this over to Ireland alone, it means the IRFU has all but neglected a third of their members in this whole issue.

And that issue goes even deeper when one thinks of the actual jerseys. Because what the Women’s team actually gets is a female cut of the male kit. Canterbury is skilled enough to make sure this is done properly when it concerns such a big client, but this is far from always the case. At international and at club level, poorly fitting kit is more the norm than an exception.

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The IRFU could have ensured there was a bespoke kit for that team, just like there is a bespoke kit for the Sevens teams. They failed at that point. Not only is that bad for the team, but it is also a marketing opportunity missed. It is something that was decided with Euro signs flashing before the eyes, rather than a thought of what is good for the teams or for the game. And with that, ultimately, they lose out financially as well.

From a marketing point of view, giving the Irish Women a bespoke kit would actually make sense. Going out to support them, people would be more inclined to buy their jersey. Just like a jersey is available that clearly says Black Ferns on it, rather than All Blacks.

‘Women in a Men’s Game’ no longer valid

One of the common comments is how much women struggle in a game dominated by men. The suits at the IRFU just seem to have proved that point. And yet, the women players making those comments also just reinforce that point and push themselves into that corner.

The numbers don’t lie. A third of rugby players worldwide are women. A third are youth. So while the suits and old fogies might be men, there are too many women playing rugby now to think of female players as just girls trying to play a men’s game. Instead, we have women playing rugby, or women practicing a sport.

It also means Women’s Rugby is not a development project anymore either. While developments are certainly still needed, it is not the little sister anymore.

Rugby Union now is a sport, not a Men’s sport. There are two versions of it, 7-a-side and 15-a-side, and there are men and women who play it, each creating a unique form of the same game. And a unique form comes with unique problems.

The Swansea Survey

The second bit of news that has come out is a far more important development for Women’s Rugby than the jersey controversy. A team at Swansea University is now starting a survey of injuries in the women’s game. A study into concussion in Women’s Rugby from the same university has been underway for a few months now and has already come up with some data and conclusions that can impact the way players train and play. Results in a Canadian study of concussion in contact sports, which include female rugby players have also been published.

Most of the law changes and injury prevention is based on data from the men’s game, with data from the women’s game lacking, which has a large impact on the safety for female players.

One of the injuries that will certainly show up as far more prevalent will be ACL injuries. Studies in other sports, like football, have shown that women have a 2-3 times higher chance of ACL injuries. A link to the hormonal changes due to the menstrual cycle seems to play a part in this.

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The real issues facing Women’s Rugby

The “women-playing-a-men’s-game” thought that pervades so much of the game is a serious issue when it comes to injuries and injury prevention. By training female players as though they are just weaker and smaller men, they are more likely to be injured.

In football, Chelsea has linked training to the menstrual cycle. At lower levels of any sport, this is too extreme to implement consistently. However, it does show a clear example of specific needs.

The prevalence of ACL injuries can be addressed by extra attention to strengthening the muscles around the knee. The studies about concussion have shown that teaching proper falling technique also has to be a much bigger priority than with men.

Looking at skills, there are also differences to male players. Trainers and coaches have to be aware of the fact that girls are often far less active than boys. A survey from 2017 in England has shown this. Other studies worldwide have shown similar results.

One of the crucial outcomes of those studies is that girls then do not develop the same motor skills as the boys. This carries on into adult life. Coaches are often not aware of this when coaching women. Another crucial conclusion is that confidence plays a large role in not doing sports for teenage girls. Failing during training or matches then has a larger impact than on boys or men afterward as well. All too few coaches take this into account.

In the end, all of those factors mean that the entire mindset for the players coming into the team and into the game is different. All of those factors, alongside different levels of spatial awareness, strength and explosivity make Women’s Rugby a different sport from Men’s.

What it needs – a change in mindset

A lot has changed since the first ever Women’s Test Match in Utrecht in 1982. At that point, women struggled to play at all. The women’s game was clearly a smaller sister then. Now a third of all players are women. And the women’s game is a distinct form of the game. It is a distinct sport. Just like Sevens, it comes with its own issues and demands. It has its own problems and its own needs. It comes with its own qualities and its own attractions.

The time has come for the mindset around Women’s Rugby to change. It is time for everyone to realize these simple facts. As soon as this change in mindset takes place, all these issues will begin to be addressed.

There will be a change in training and in the way matches are approached and marketed. Kit and gear requirements will be properly addressed. Law changes will take both men and women into account. Nobody will talk about women in the game as an oddity, they will simply be fellow rugby players.

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