Rugby as a sport is a big part of the culture in the U.K. In fact, participation of Rugby Union is growing year on year for women’s and girls’ teams across the country.
According to the RFU, England’s Rugby governing body, 40,000 women and girls are currently registered as players across 400 clubs in England. The RFU are reporting a huge 17% year-on-year growth in participation of the women’s game, which is astounding.
The rise of the women’s game has been nothing short of exceptional. Recent news of TikTok sponsoring the Women’s Six Nations has certainly elevated that growth, as we are already seeing more mainstream media coverage of the sport, and more brands taking notice of the sport and its potential.
The domestic league in England is one of the best in the world for women’s rugby. The Allianz Premier 15’s has attracted a high amount of global talent, with the skill level continuing to grow week on week.
Women’s rugby is often quoted as being one of the fastest growing sports, and it’s hard to disagree with that based on the above.
However, with big periods of growth also come big periods of change, change which is often long overdue. The battle to grow this sport has not been an easy one.
For example, within the TikTok Women’s Six Nations England remain the only fully professional side within the tournament, which goes a long way to explaining the teams current 19 match winning streak. Looking over to other teams in the tournament, there is still an outstanding need for unions to professionalise their players.
The WRU recently handed out a 12 full time professional contracts to players, meaning that selection of the wider squad can now concentrate on rugby full time. The contracts are already clearly making some form of difference, as the team went onto beat Ireland in the first round of the TikTok Women’s Six Nation’s at the RDS.
Looking to the domestic league in England, contracts are still a prominent issue. Players without these in place have to balance full time work alongside the demands of being an elite level athlete, which comes with its own set of problems.
Although investment in the game has come on significantly from where it was years ago, the game still has a way to go on this. I truly believe that it is investment which will drive the growth and participation to a completely different level. Brands have a big part to play in this, especially sporting brands. Giving visibility to the women’s game and the female players involved in it is crucial. The narrative around women involved in this sport has flipped in recent months, brands are putting backing behind players to ensure their stories are being told in all the right ways.
Another issue which is prevalent in the women’s game, at all levels, is how the sport is framed and viewed among the public. Unfortunately, women playing the game are still subject to overwhelming negative stereotypes. There is still an arguably toxic perception about women’s rugby players that involves their skill level. I can’t tell you how many times I hear phrases like “I didn’t even know women could play rugby” or “Is it full contact, or tag rugby?”.
It’s also in the micro aggressions too, when you are asked if you play on the same sized pitch as the men, or if you use the same sized ball, or play for the same amount of time. It still isn’t clear to me if these are rooted in genuine concern or blind ignorance, but either way we as women are sick of answering the same questions. How difficult is it to understand that it’s exactly the same sport, played in the same way, with the same laws?
It’s also important to recognise that these issues are not just central to women’s rugby, but a reflection of issues we see in wider society today. Therefore, addressing them doesn’t just sit in the responsibility set of the rugby or sporting world.
Although the sport has come on leaps and bounds in the past year, we still have huge strides to take. From professional contracts to basic respect and equal opportunities, now is the time to sit back and learn from the women involved in this sport, to listen to what they need and act on that information you get.
2022 is the year for women’s rugby, we have, for the first time, a title sponsor for the Tik Tok Women’s Six Nations, a World Cup on the horizon and unprecedented coverage of the women’s game. Only time will tell if this year translates into successful growth for the women’s game.
Words by Stella Mills