8.7 million rugby fans tuned into Scotland deservedly beating England at Twickenham for the first time in 38 years on Saturday. Little did they know, there was another upset playing out in Devon as Exeter Chiefs Women secured their fourth win on the bounce, seeing off Harlequins in a nail-biting battle. A modest 1600 viewers tuned in to the game, which boasted a number of future England stars giving Simon Middleton something to think about in preparation for his Six Nations and World Cup campaigns. 2021 could be the year for women’s rugby.
Born into a rugby mad family, I grew up watching my dad play at Old Albanians RFC. As he edged closer to retirement, he stayed on the pitch at half time to give me and my brother some high catches and a chance to practice our passing and kicking. After the game, you would either find me drinking the dregs of beer on the tables or singing the club song, sat on the bar. It was a male rich environment. More often than not, the only women in the clubhouse the whole weekend were either running the bar, cooking the food, or picking the kids up.
Times have changed. Not only is there a place for women’s rugby in the clubhouse, there is a place for women’s rugby across the world. I am proud to say that I am a fan of women’s rugby, a convert; the views of yesteryear are outdated. Even better, recent successes have proved that women’s rugby is firmly on the map and is here to stay.
Increasingly inspired by the impact many are having in promoting rugby to demographics that otherwise may not have had an opportunity to play (see Vitality Grassroots Sportswomen of the Year 2020, Zainab Alema, for example) it is also great to see the likes of Maggie Alphonsi, Nolli Waterman and Kat Merchant on our screens as pundits. There is great hope for the future generations of Red Roses.
There has, however, been one reoccurring theme throughout the increasing exposure that has greatly stunted the game’s growth – the commentary.
I have been fortunate to see, first-hand, the dedication and commitment made by players at Premier 15s and International level. There is nothing lesser about what these athletes put themselves through to achieve their goals in comparison to the men’s game. In fact, there is a whole lot more as the large majority have to balance full-time jobs, studying for degrees or in some examples, leading the nations efforts in combating COVID-19. These rugby players deserve far more respect, at all levels.
Yet, whilst watching and listening to the matches, comments regarding the sport are unappreciative and condescending. Even worse, these comments are echoed through the fan base. Despite the highly qualified pundits providing their expert insight, this shift must happen now, if the followership is going to continue to grow as it should.
Whilst we have been fortunate to have a steady stream of rugby to watch over the winter months, the Allianz Premier 15s games tend to have a similar issue.
Exeter have caused two huge upsets, and in doing so inflicting Saracens’ first loss since October 2018 last week. In a game that looked like it could come down to the wire, Saracens unleashed England International Poppy Cleall from the bench. In a pivotal moment in the game when Saracens had the upper hand and momentum, they were awarded penalty advantage and a ‘free play’. Cleall, typically a second row or back row forward, kicked the ball away in anticipation of being awarded the subsequent penalty. Commentary followed, ‘we’ll let her off that one’. Holly Aitchison missed touch, Exeter were on the front foot and the game shifted into their hands. Should Cleall have been let off? Or had she kicked the game away?
As we wait for the Red Roses to play their Six Nations Competition in April – out of the shadows of the men’s tournament – last Autumn, 1.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the scintillating two-match series between England and France. One game displayed a dominant England side become top on the world rankings followed by an astonishing comeback against a passionate French team at the Home of Rugby a week later.
There was also a defining moment during the Red Rose’s Grand Slam Six Nations win against Italy last season. Thirty-three minutes in, England were dominating. With penalty advantage, inside centre Amber Reed broke through the Italian defence on the attacking 22m line and offloaded to scrum-half Claudia MacDonald, only for the opportunity to go begging. Clearly devastated, MacDonald trudged back, hands on head. Embed from Getty Images
The commentary that followed completely under-valued the sport. “She’s smiling, that’s alright” and “She knows she had the advantage, so it’s fine”. No. It was a clear error. I am sure the first person to say she should have done better, is the England half-back herself.
Echo a similar situation in men’s rugby. Those that watched the Six Nations this weekend saw two fly-halves get a slating for missing two rather large opportunities. With Billy Burns missing touch in the final play of Wales vs Ireland and ruining a last gasp chance to steal the game, and Owen Farrell neglecting a 4 man overlap by kicking the ball down Stuart Hogg’s throat, it seems that in the women’s game the commentary is far more forgiving. This should not be the case, particularly whilst the most passionate women’s rugby advocates are pushing hard for equality. The sympathetic commentary should be reserved for the parents on the sidelines of the grassroots level; the future Red Roses who play on a Sunday morning at their local club.
A missed tackle whilst watching the Red Roses would be met with a comment like ‘that was a good effort to try make that tackle’. It happens more often than not. A similar scenario in the men’s game would draw some deep analysis of what that missed tackle means for the team. As a consequence, the supporters deem these belittling comments acceptable and they are echoed throughout the rugby circles.
Another comparison worth making is one we often hear regarding the styles of play – northern vs southern hemisphere – but the commentary style is noticeably different too. We should learn from some of the Farah Palmer Cup commentary. There is a great deal more conviction and passion, no differentiation between what you’d see and hear in a Mitre 10 Cup game. Even better, you won’t find many negative comments regarding the competition in their resident country either. A coincidence? Perhaps not.
Now, with the buildup to the busy calendar of rugby in 2021, our Red Roses deserve greater appreciation. There is no better place to start than with the Premier 15s and the way we, from fans to commentators alike, observe and articulate our views on the analysis of the game.
If the women’s game is to be taken seriously, then the players cannot be treated differently. Now more than ever, that has to begin with how we make comment about it.