The Glasgow Guardian examines the increase in participation and growth of women’s rugby in Scotland.
Stepping out onto the pitch in the torrential rain for their first game of the 2022/23 season, Glasgow University’s Women’s Rugby team (GUWRFC) wanted to send out the message that women and girls can do what has always been publically described as a sport for men.
2022 has been a monumental year for women’s rugby, as the sport is now considered one of the fastest-growing sports in the UK, having undergone significant development in the past ten months. Earlier this year in June, it was announced that professional contracts will be given to a minimum of 30 Scotland Women players and two new semi-pro teams launched after this autumn’s Rugby World Cup as part of a four-year plan to grow the game. The overarching aim of the four-year strategy is to increase the number of girls and women playing rugby and the sport’s visibility. With the first ever recorded women’s rugby union team taking form at Edinburgh University in 1962, it has taken 60 years for women to finally have these opportunities.
Scottish Rugby has pledged to invest £2.5 million to cover the first year of the strategy, taking the total women and girls’ funding to £4.1m, more than double the previous year’s allocation. The increased investment by the game’s governing body is designed to not only help at the elite level of the women’s game but also at the grassroots, supporting children, students and recreational players.
Thanks to campaigns, movements and an increase in publicity around the game, traditional expectations of how a woman should look and exercise have been defied and more opportunities have become available for young girls at school and in the community. As a result participation numbers in women and girls’ rugby in Scotland increasing from 2,680 to 6,173, over the last decade. As rugby emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic, society began to see women’s rugby in a different light, as a “socially acceptable” sport for women and girls and consequently witnessed “an unprecedented rise in participation figures” according to the governing body. Suddenly, there was a need to take advantage of the momentum that had been created in the sport in Scotland, to encourage long-lasting, transformational change and allow women and girls’ rugby to define its own identity and pave its own path within the rugby landscape in Scotland.
GUWRFC Coach Craig Colvin highlighted the massive amounts of support that the women’s game has had from Scottish Rugby over the last few years and the importance of continuing to grow the sport, on all levels, whether that be players, administrative staff or coaches.
“I think we’ve had huge backing from Scottish Rugby,” he told The Glasgow Guardian. “The coverage of the game, especially at grassroots level and schools, that features the promotion of inclusivity has had a huge impact.”
“It’s about getting involved no matter what level because it’s about exposing the sport to more people. If you’re really good at it, you can play, but if you’re not, there are so many other options for you within rugby, in particular women’s rugby.”
Inclusivity is one of the things that GUWRFC pride itself on. Community and creating a welcoming and friendly atmosphere for female athletes are at the heart of the club, regardless of ability or experience. It is clear from the moment that the team arrives at each training session or on match day that they are all in it together, with no exceptions. Everyone works for each other and empties the tank on the field, come rain or shine, win or loss. There is no shortness of confidence, physicality or aggression in every tackle and every run.
The university team has, in the past, featured some outstanding players and game-changers in the sport, such as Scotland Lock Louise McMillan, and Liz Stewart, who started the women’s section at local club Hills (Hillhead Jordanhill RFC) in 1995. Second-year student Sonia Smolina has her dreams set on following in these footsteps. Already a member of Sweden’s International 7s and 15s teams, she is so passionate about promoting women’s rugby and striving for equal opportunities for women to become professional rugby players and compete at a high level.
“I think in a way we need to prove that women and girls can do it. What was typically known as a male-dominated sport, women can do,” she said with such emotion. “I really love seeing those inspiring posts by players saying that ‘this is us, we’re able to play at this level and we’re able to go professional.’”
“There are so many great players in the England women’s rugby team, who have shared their stories and the fact that now since being professional, they’re able to dedicate all their time to it; it’s their passion, it’s what they love and I feel the same away. I think that to play rugby full-time and have those opportunities would be really special.”
Even students who have come to university having never played or even watched a rugby game before are now able to acknowledge how women’s rugby is an ever-changing and growing sport, yet, unfortunately, can still see the problems that have ruled over the sport for so long.. This is true for Kaja Lauritzen, who has been part of GUWRFC for just over a year and has still experienced her share of inequality, despite the increase in popularity of the sport.
“This year, there’s been more publicity around women’s rugby than we would’ve expected with the Women’s Six Nations securing TikTok as a sponsor and the Rugby World Cup games being streamed on ITV,” highlighted the second-year Psychology student. “I do feel like we are definitely getting better and better but there’s still quite obviously a long way to go.”
“So many women’s games are often played on back pitches or are hard to access for streaming online. Even at the university level, I feel like men’s rugby is always prioritised more. A lot of the time, we’re not allowed on the main pitch at Garscube because it is preserved for the men’s matches and every Friday we share an Astro-pitch with the men’s team,” she said as the men’s team began creeping into the women’s half, leaving the women with only a third of a pitch to train on.
What lies ahead for women’s rugby following the completion of the Rugby World Cup next month still remains in the balance but the aim for GUWRFC is clear: the creation of a development team. Currently, there is only one women’s rugby team at Glasgow University but with numbers and interest increasing, Captain Chloe Drew wants to build a foundation to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in matches and training – something that currently would not be possible.
Women’s rugby has evolved massively since women had to play the sport in secret to avoid public pressure and societal issues, but there are still changes to be made and infrastructure to be put in place to ensure that this growth is sustainable and that opportunities are available for everyone, whether that be at international, university, club or recreational level.
The Rugby World Cup will take place from 8 October to 12 November in New Zealand, with the potential to watch the matches this autumn in the GUU.