Wednesday 29 January 2020

'Women who participated in other traditional 'male' sports used to be regarded as some sort of sexual deviants'

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross TD and Ireland head coach Tom Tierney with his players, from left, Hannah Tyrrell, Niamh Briggs, and Lindsay Peat during the Ireland Women's Rugby World Cup Squad Announcement at the UCD Bowl, in Belfield, Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross TD and Ireland head coach Tom Tierney with his players, from left, Hannah Tyrrell, Niamh Briggs, and Lindsay Peat during the Ireland Women's Rugby World Cup Squad Announcement at the UCD Bowl, in Belfield, Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Katie Liston

In the mid-1990s, I frequently passed the UCD women's rugby team in the corridors of the sports centre. Then, along with current Irish outhalf Nora Stapleton, I was involved in other team sports to such a high level that I did not have time to play competitive rugby.

I was later able to do so in the early 2000s, when team-mates at Blackrock WRFC played a pivotal role in the progression of playing, coaching and development standards in the international team and in the game as a whole. Not having even a tenth of the current budget allocated by the IRFU, those international players established their own strength and conditioning programmes, trained with male club players for a greater physical challenge and organised their entire lives - family, holidays and unpaid leave - in their quest to represent Ireland.

This level of sustained commitment was all the more noteworthy considering that Ireland's first Six Nations victory in the women's game did not come until March 2005 against Wales and South Africa was their first World Cup scalp in 2006. En route, many women's rugby players were stigmatised, personally and as a group, for playing a 'man's game.' The general attitude was that women had no place in the local rugby club as board members or as coaches and certainly not as players.

This was not unusual in that sportswomen who participated in other traditional 'male' sports were regarded as some sort of sexual deviants. Rugby was the worst however. Not only was the social stigma greater and arguably more potent, but the women's game was chronically underfunded and its representatives were typically treated as a noisy interloper in a male preserve.

Jump forward a quarter of a century or so and seven of the eight women's rugby clubs that currently compete in the all-Ireland league are integrated within established men's clubs, one (in Belfast) sharing the use of a community sports facility with other local male and female sports teams.

Social media permits us to have a much closer relationship with the team, unfettered by the mainstream as it were: we can join them in #BringIt photoshoots and off-camera banter; the hard work of lifting/pressing twice their own bodyweight is shared proudly for all to see; as is the camaraderie amongst a group of women focused on being the very best they can be over the coming weeks - physically, psychologically and technically.

The traditional class pattern associated with rugby union is mirrored in the women's game, though less rigidly today. Women comprise approximately two per cent of the rugby playing population in Ireland. There is one female member of the more than 20-strong IRFU committee which has acknowledged the continued prevalence of a perception of the women's game in annual reports as well as the challenge of running an all-Ireland league from a comparatively small playing base.

Yet, remarkably, a little over a quarter of a century on, the women's team begins its campaign in the 2017 World Cup against Australia, hosted on the island of Ireland. Quite the cultural turn.

Lest we reduce them to high performance sports engines alone (which is a concerning development in itself), there is much more to the WRWC than the game of rugby itself.

Similar to developments internationally, women have gradually increased their participation in sports and physical activities throughout Ireland in the past 25 years. The period could be characterised as a feminisation of sport. The Irish Women's Rugby Football Union was established in 1991. Affiliated to the IRFU in 2001, current membership is estimated to be around 4,000 players and growing, a threefold increase since the 1990s when frequent charges from the majority of the male rugby-playing fraternity were that women were not only 'using' but 'cutting up our pitch', 'taking over the dressing rooms' and encroaching upon one of the few remaining true male preserves.

If the current crop of players could be described as having won the hearts of the nation with their Six Nations titles in 2013 and 2015 and the historic defeat of the Black Ferns in the last World Cup, it was the players of the 1990s and 2000s who truly paved the way. They, and the visionary IWRFU, persisted in the face of much resistance, aware of the importance of creating a cultural space in which women's physicality could be developed, expressed and, in time, fêted.

Undoubtedly the sport is reaching out to new participants globally and a compelling and competitive tournament will be instrumental in securing the continued expansion of the women's game beyond the 1.7 million that currently play worldwide. There is an opening in the fortified gates that protected this male space. The unencumbered celebration by team-mates, and by us as supporters and viewers, of Lindsay Peat's line-breaks, Jenny Murphy's crunching midfield tackles and the field vision of Stapleton's behind-the-defence kicks are symptomatic of this. Social stigma has decreased, though not disappeared, and employer programmes are in place to permit the squad to focus full-time on their World Cup exploits in the short-term. The squad alone cannot keep these gates open, however, nor should they be expected to do so.

Their legacy, and our collective responsibility, is to the many cohorts of primary-aged boys and girls across the island. It is their attitudes to gender and to the leadership offered by women in sport, on and off the field, which will ultimately determine the WRWC legacy.

Far from lacking an accumulated rugby wisdom, women and girls possess the attributes to be coaches and players, committee leaders, referees and so on, today and into the future. The issue is not one of accumulation or even of acculturation to 'the ways of the game'. Rather, it is one of diversity, equality and strategies to deliver these. Not only do both make good business sense - the WRWC is undoubtedly a carrot for the potential success of the 2023 bid - but they would be a far more credible and serious statement of intent for future generations.

Dr Katie Liston is Sociologist of Sport at Ulster University (@kliston14)

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