Even as the last flake of glitter confetti settles on the outfield at Lord’s, comes news of a decision by a rival sporting bastion to take us back to an era when Time Lords were always men and, funnily enough, so were rugby players.
It’s hard to imagine – in these moments of deep appreciation for women’s cricket following the superbly-staged World Cup final, not to mention the fulminating political issue of equal pay at the BBC – a more catastrophically crass adjudication. One that turns a tin ear to the cacophonous celebration of women’s team sport just now, and a blind eye to the wider cultural zeitgeist.
In essence, the Rugby Football Union, have decided that the system of central contracts awarded to the England team (female) going out to Ireland next month to defend their World Cup title will be disbanded and the players sent back to their day jobs afterwards, apart from a smaller group that constitutes the sevens’ squad.
What manner of craziness is this? It tells certain members of the current squad: “Good luck, and by the way, win or lose, we don’t really think you’re worth it as full-time players so you’d better go back to your job excavating turds from U-bends at your plumbing business. We’ll call you again when we need you.” That’s hardly what the sport psychologists would call motivation.
And it tells the world, that while women’s cricket, women’s football, women’s hockey, have all gone full-time in the recent past, with stand-alone sponsor deals to match, women’s rugby is not so aspirational.
And the timing! The RFU have just delivered themselves a month-long PR nightmare. Every preview, every match (on terrestrial television, ITV, with all its potential to command a massive audience), every report, every try, tackle, scrum, flash of brilliance on the field is likely to kick off the wondering thought: “Why are half these women being treated as bit-parts?”
The Red Roses have truly caught black spot courtesy of their bosses – just as they are about to bloom.
It comes down to this: there is no one at the centre of the RFU who is the beating heart and professional head of the women’s game. Clare Connor is that figure at the English Cricket Board. It is testimony to her unwavering drive, and the ECB’s unstinting support, that England captain Heather Knight held aloft the World Cup trophy last Sunday in front of a sell-out crowd and a record-breaking television audience.
As a former England captain herself, Connor set about reform (of an organisation, don’t forget, who literally banned women from certain floorboards, certain seats, certain blades of grass, so deeply weird did they seem to the incumbent chaps) with tact but determination. She would be the first to say it was a team initiative. But it needed someone at the centre saying: “Let’s treat the women well – and see where it goes.”
The RFU, perversely in the 21st century, are saying: Let’s see what’s the minimum we can get away with.”
Deep down, do they really think that rugby is still, and only, a man’s game? Ask Maggie Alphonsi, one of the greatest players England has produced (who calls the decision “disappointing”, by the way, probably conveying oceans of meaning that she dare not express given her role as a rugby ambassador). To her the sport was a life-saver, almost literally. As a schoolgirl, when everyone else was saying, ‘Don’t behave like that! Don’t be aggressive!’, her rugby coaches said the exact opposite. Rugby gave her the freedom to express herself, to channel her energy in the most positive way.
There are women and girls out there who would love the release of playing rugby, who might be enthralled by watching the Rugby World Cup, encouraged to source a local team, inspired to raise their sights to the national team. Then to be told: “You’d better get yourself down the Job Centre if you want to play for England.” Really?
This sevens business is a cop-out. Last time we looked the Six Nations, in which England compete every year, was a 15-a-side game. The RFU, a stupendously rich body, should be supporting a 15-a-side squad. And it needs to appoint someone with clout, understanding and a tin hat to support, without fail, the needs and wonders of women’s rugby right at the heart of its operation.
Finally, a test. Just try reversing the situation to see if this isn’t, at root, a blatantly sexist decision. Tell Eddie Jones that since the next men’s Rugby World Cup isn’t until September 2019, his squad will be halved in number. The rest will be out working in marketing, as teachers, maybe a bit of plumbing, if they’re lucky.
Then stand back for the explosion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles