“So do you have any interests? Play any sports?” ,
My response, “Yes actually, I play rugby-”
Predictably followed by eyebrows raised in shock, scorn, admiration or disbelief – it varies.
Often there is some hilarious comment about women being delicate, or how I must be up against big, masculine girls. Sometimes they ask whether the rules are the same, “Is the ball smaller?”. Or there is the, “but you’re too pretty to play rugby, love.” That’s my favourite.
For some time women have been allowed to play sport, and properly, not just to keep in shape. A key moment was the 1900 Paris Olympics, the first Olympic games to include women participants. However, there still seems to be a line between men’s and women’s sports.
Netball, hockey, tennis, basketball, gymnastics, rounders, athletics, are all pitches and courts where we can picture women without much trouble. But we have to work a little harder to remember that the fairer sex are capable of excelling at football, rugby, cricket, American football, and why? Is it the added aggression? Surely not for cricket.
Is it simply that these sports embody what it is to be male? By competing in these activities are women taking away from lads banter? Are they destroying a sacred ground of sweaty man smells and the ultimate display of pure masculinity?
Perhaps the real question is: When we play these sports, why are we so aware of our gender?
It’s not rugby I play, it’s ‘women’s rugby’.
And every training session, every match, every conversation about my hobby, I am reminded that we are playing on a frontline where we’re pushing against what people expect from women. We often debate about how much we get paid compared to our male colleagues, how airbrushed our models are, or what colour toys we buy for little girls or boys. Yet, sport has definitely been the space where I’ve had to fight hardest against society’s and my own perception of my female-ness.
Playing rugby as a woman is like feminism on the frontline. It’s not just talking about sexism; it is fighting the men’s first team for spots on the best pitch and having to assert our possession of space. It’s playing your heart out in front of a crowd of eight people, then watching the stands fill up in the last 10 minutes because the men’s game is about to start.
It’s listening to men in waterproof trousers yell at you and telling yourself, this isn’t patronising, at least they’re training us as equals. And it’s wandering around Sports Direct looking for rugby boots that might fit your tiny lady feet and resorting to the kids’ – boys’ – section.
With the increasing popularity of campaigns like This Girl Can, we are talking more about how women can play sports, and being part of the rugby team taught me what that actually looks like. Despite the concerns of parents and some doctors, we are able to tackle and be tackled without damaging our bodies any more than the boys. Not only are we able to survive a full 80 minutes with a full sized ball and all the proper rules, we can also actually be good at it! If you watched England in the women’s Six Nations last year, you know that.
Yet, it’s harder to convince people, and it’s more difficult to sell tickets to our matches, to see our games on TV and get financial support for our teams. Like most traditional institutions in Britain, many rugby clubs run on the generosity of older rich men who have an affiliation with the team. Particularly in University sport, funding from wealthy male alumni is never hard to find, the rest of the costs are covered by local or larger businesses scrambling to sponsor the club.
For my university team, we emailed around, went into shops, phoned local businesses, sweet-talked rich friends of our teammates’ parents, and just about scraped together an amount to fund two teams (along with membership costs of course). This isn’t a rant about white male privilege, it’s just an observation. We were lucky to be running a club just as the women’s game was gaining popularity at a university where the sports department was able to support us, but not all women’s clubs have that privilege.
So, what should make a girl want to play rugby? If not for the exhilarating feeling of deliberately facing minor displays of sexism and oppression in everyday life? The physical experience of playing a sport where you hold nothing back is incomparable, unique. Running not as if you’re being chased but because you actually are. Dodging a body that is charging at you to take you down mercilessly. Fighting through mud to protect your teammate buried under a pile of the opposition. Throwing all your weight into a maul with the sole aim of physically being the strongest pack of people.
Such raw expressions of physicality, pushing your body to its limits and heading onto the pitch with the nerves of, “I really hope I don’t get seriously injured today”, aren’t experiences we typically associate with femininity. They are aggression, violence, powerful, big, all words attached to the “masculine” label. This is not just a question of language. It is reality: these experiences are exclusive, traditionally exclusively male, so the act of playing such a physical sport feels rebellious and new. It is a performance in the gap between femininity and masculinity, experimenting with what we were always told our bodies aren’t made for.
It may sound romanticised, but on the rugby pitch I have found a physical way to fight society’s expectations, a group of sportswomen with whom you form a unique camaraderie. It is a sport that welcomes all body types and represents all types of power. It is one massive risk-fuelled adrenaline rush that gets you fit physically and mentally. And when we have our own boots on Sports Direct’s shelves, equal airtime on ITV sport, a load of dollar raining in from old wealthy women to every university team, and not a single raised eyebrow when we bring up our hobby; it’ll be a great day for women and a great day for rugby.
Megan Husband, Sports Editor
photos courtesy of Megan