Sport Rugby

Sunday 18 August 2019

Irish rugby must up its game – the women’s sport is stymied without a level playing field

Lindsay Peat. Photo: Sportsfile
Lindsay Peat. Photo: Sportsfile

Martha Devlin

Fair play is a foundation stone of sport – if it’s flouted, the sport suffers.

And so to rugby, which is busy undermining the fair-play code, by treating women players with condescension while mouthing platitudes about equality.

Rugby has been in the news because of a wobble in Ireland’s 2023 World Cup bid. Naturally, the bid to host such a lucrative competition is headline news. But what of how the game is developing closer to home? 

On the pitch, women’s rugby has been making exceptional strides – but the game’s power-brokers give insufficient credit for it.

Widespread dismay greeted the Irish Rugby Football Union’s (IRFU) decision to appoint the next women’s head coach on a part-time basis, regarded as a retrograde step. 

As for rugby at provincial and club level, the signs are equally disappointing.

In a setback for equality principles, Leinster Rugby is refusing to accept that women’s teams can achieve senior status. A dedicated and successful Dublin team has waged a two-year campaign for admission to the province’s executive committee, but Leinster continues to say no, effectively declining to recognise their sporting achievements. 

The cumulative impact of such regressive decisions is an ugly one: it tells women players they are worth less than their male counterparts. In rugby, equality is a myth.

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Yet discrimination contravenes the values of Irish rugby explicitly listed by the IRFU. Respect, integrity and inclusivity are all cited as integral to the sport by its governing body.

On respect, the IRFU says “all players, regardless of ability, age or gender”, are due it. Integrity, it insists, is generated in various ways including “fair play”.

As for inclusivity, the body’s strategic plan pledges “IRFU/Province to promote as game for all”, and commits itself to transcending all manner of differences. Gender is mentioned specifically.

But the gap between word and deed is a broad one.

Women’s rugby is a highly regarded part of the Irish rugby family, claims the IRFU, while deciding that a part-time coach is adequate to its needs.

As for Leinster Rugby, its stance downgrades the women’s game to a second-rate branch of the sport.

Let’s consider the Leinster case in greater detail, as an example of where change could be introduced relatively easily – except the gatekeepers lack the vision to do so.

Since 2015, Railway Union RFC, in south Dublin, have been pushing for senior status recognition from Leinster, and admission to the executive. This is on the basis their women’s 1st XV, a team which plays in the All-Ireland League Division 1, have collected a raft of trophies and are among the top teams in the country.

Leinster Rugby, fossilised by custom, is hiding behind one of its bylaws. Nothing in the rulebook specifically forbids senior women’s teams from a place on the executive. But the rules are being interpreted by Leinster’s 42-strong committee – entirely male – in a way that keeps women out. 

Leinster took legal advice on bylaw number 7.1, which defines a senior club as one participating in the All-Ireland League. The advice says this means the male league, although the bylaw terminology is non-specific. The words man or woman, male or female, are not used.

A more enlightened and generous group of people would choose not to apply the bylaw in such a narrow, legalistic way.

After all, it is only advice – one law firm’s, at that.

So, rules devised by men and operating to the advantage of men are being used to discriminate against women. Furthermore, the bylaw is double-jobbing, because it has been pressed into service as a fig leaf: allowing Leinster Rugby’s executive committee to claim it is simply following the rules. 

No wonder women players feel disrespected, and accuse the sport’s male ethos of resistance to change.

The implications are that full participation in the governance and democratic structures of the province’s rugby are reserved solely for those associated with the men’s 1st XV. The consequence, inevitably, is a lack of female representation. Any women who fight their way onto executive bodies are there representing men’s teams, and not as a voice for women’s rugby. 

Women play rugby, coach rugby and attend rugby matches as supporters. But they are being disbarred from key decision-making forums where they would have a say in the sport’s future direction.

“This is not about men versus women, but about people who care passionately about rugby and want an opportunity to influence both the strategic and operational direction of the game. We’d like a seat at the table based on our very strong women’s team,” says Railway’s president Shirley Corcoran.

“Our women players are playing at the pinnacle of their sport, but it’s not being recognised and this undermines them.

“It’s frustrating, discriminatory and simply not acceptable in this day and age.” 

While there is a financial advantage to being on the executive – clubs are entitled to a significantly higher ticket allocation – Ms Corcoran (who plays front row) insists it’s not the driving reason why Railway want recognition.

It’s about respect, and the chance to influence the game’s development. 

In addition, she points out that sport has many benefits, ranging from health to community involvement, but studies show that girls’ participation in games dwindles during their teens. While various factors drive disengagement, the disregard paid to their sporting contribution hardly incentivises them to keep playing.

Leinster Rugby has told Railway that if women want the rules changed, they must lobby the membership and persuade 75pc to vote for it.

Railway has started that process, although it is an uphill climb.

Meanwhile, here are two questions for Irish rugby to consider.

Is it right or fair that only men can be seniors? Why not offer recognition to women’s teams which have won senior status in their league?

Such a move would give meaning to the IRFU’s hollowed-out words about equality. It would also send a supportive message to young girls playing the game, and to those coaching them.

I believe the majority of male players accept the principle of treating women players equally, and agree they should have an input into shaping the game’s future.

But the old guard fears change and resists anything that dilutes its power.

Leinster’s executive has the chance to show leadership here. It’s not too late.

Unless its members prefer wallowing in nostalgia for the days when women washed rugby shirts, instead of togging out in them?

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