Rugby World Cup: Rugby is a woman’s world too these days

Harriet Orrell on the attack

Harriet Orrell on the attack - Credit: Archant

Reporter reveals her love for the sport

England's Margaret Alphonsi is tackled by Wales' Rosie Fletcher (pic: Tony Marshall/EMPICS)

England's Margaret Alphonsi is tackled by Wales' Rosie Fletcher (pic: Tony Marshall/EMPICS) - Credit: Empics Sports Photography Ltd.

Honestly, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know what rugby was.

Born in the Welsh valleys before professionalism, international legends still played for the club they grew up with and I was being dragged along to weekly matches in my pram come rain or shine to watch my dad play.

He played for different clubs across South Wales, including captaining a team to victory in an early incarnation of the Heineken Cup in the nineties and losing to the All Blacks in the eighties.

As a girl it didn’t even cross my mind that I could don my own pair of boots and get on to the pitch myself, just like my dad, brother, uncles and cousins.

Members of East London RFC's women's team

Members of East London RFC's women's team - Credit: Archant

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Women’s rugby didn’t have the exposure then that it has now. Hot off the back of an England success in the World Cup last summer and the inclusion of sevens in the Rio Olympics it is becoming the fastest growing sport in the world.

The RFU has been working this year to get 100,000 women and girls involved in the sport in some way, whether playing, refereeing or coaching.

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It’s even getting its own stars with World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi joining the team of pundits for ITV’s coverage of this year’s tournament.

My own journey into the sport was a reluctant one.

When the women’s team at my university found out I was a fan and, even better, Welsh, they dogged me for months until I agreed to attend a training session.

Seven seasons on has seen me play for four different clubs in 12 different positions (admittedly my turn on the wing was fleeting at best).

I’ve captained teams and coached beginners and can only say I dived headfirst into the sport. No injury has stopped me from returning (nine broken noses, a couple of cheekbones, a broken foot and countless torn ligaments) and I can see exactly where the passion for players and fans alike comes from.

Rugby has been plagued by news of concussions and head injuries for years and the tragic death of 23-year-old Sarah Chesters has led to many people warning the sport is not for girls.

Respectfully, I beg to differ.

It is a contact sport and yes there are knocks and as we have seen it can massively affect the careers of even the world’s best.

Wales winger George North and England full-back Mike Brown have both suffered serious setbacks due to head injuries while Ireland scrum half Conor Murray was rushed from the field in the World Cup warm-up match against England after losing consciousness for a few moments.

Canada’s captain and veteran Clermont lock, James Cudmore, spoke of a concussion nightmare which almost drove him to retire this summer.

“I had three months off,” he told PA Sport, “I went through all the protocols and all the tests, the neurological work-ups and stuff.

“It was very scary, I had all kinds of symptoms: headaches, very irritable, tired when you shouldn’t be, then really tired and not being able to sleep.

“It was tough, but thankfully with rest and the right medical help I’m out on the other side.”

Sarah went down in a tackle and complained of pain to her collarbone, but walked off the pitch, declining an ambulance or hospital treatment. She died around a month later from brain injuries related to the tackle which her team-mate, Lesley Thompson, described as “just a tackle, nothing malicious or heated” at a hearing.

Players, men and women, are trained meticulously to look after their bodies and get stronger, faster and fitter through rugby to avoid injuries, but they happen, it is the nature of the game.

But this is no reason to avoid the sport. It teaches discipline, confidence, teamwork and instills camaraderie into everyone in every club.

I moved to London knowing almost no one else and now I have a family that transcends borders with the women I have met through rugby living in different continents across the globe.

Women all over the world are proving this isn’t a man’s world any more. More are playing rugby than ever with 121,000 girls across 183 nations being introduced to the game last year causing global participation to reach an all time high of 1.7 million.

Another huge step in the sport in England came just after the World Cup final where 20 women in England were handed professional contracts to play sevens.

World Rugby’s development manager, Susan Carty, said: “I hope a new generation of women and young girls are inspired to take up rugby, make new friendships and dream big.”

The future of women’s rugby is exciting and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

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