Rugby’s Game Changers: Women Leading The Way
Women's football may be driving all the media attention and social buzz, but women's rugby is poised to become the next catalyst for change. Glorious spoke to the women who are working behind the scenes in rugby to find out how and why women’s rugby is set to spark the next women’s sport revolution
By Jenny Mitton
It’s fair to say most people assume that football is the fastest growing women’s sport in England. After all, the Lionesses did bring football home, ending 56 years of hurt by lifting the Women’s Euros trophy last summer. But lurking in the wings is women’s rugby. A sport that is growing apace and has the potential to deliver the same seismic change as women’s football. Rugby offers something different in the women’s sport space. The overt physicality of the game gives women a powerful platform from which to challenge gender stereotypes. The game’s physical and demanding nature goes against society’s hegemonic ideals of how women should be perceived and portrayed.
Ex-England and Harlequins player Shaunagh Brown summed up the opportunity in a rousing speech after her team won the Premier 15’s (the women’s rugby domestic league in England), stating: “This is not just about rugby, this is not just about the sport, it’s about women and women’s sport. It’s about putting us on a platform and knowing that we can do it.” But it’s not only the incredible players on the pitch driving this change. Behind the scenes are a group of women shaping the future of women’s rugby. Whilst boundaries are broken and stereotypes challenged on the pitch, these women are quietly providing a platform for visibility which will enable the sport to thrive.
Shaping The Modern Women’s Rugby Tournament
This weekend the TikTok Women’s Six Nations Championship will kick off, an annual tournament which sees the best teams in the northern hemisphere compete. Behind the scenes, the team at Six Nations Rugby has been shaping what a modern women’s rugby tournament should look like, front and centre is Sarah Beattie, the Chief Marketing Officer.
In 2021 the Women’s Six Nations came out of the shadows of the men’s tournament when it was given its own window. This scheduling change meant fans didn’t have to choose between watching a men’s or women’s match, consequently the women’s games were broadcast on TV and the stand-alone schedule gave the tournament instant credibility. Seems obvious, right? But a lot of work went behind the scenes to get to this point.
Suddenly the women’s tournament was thrust into the spotlight, but for Sarah and the team this certainty wasn’t a case of ‘job done’. “We had work to do to make sure it not just met but exceeded the needs and expectations of society; particularly of younger, more globally diverse fans,” says Sarah. This included creating a whole new look and feel and shaping a tournament that wasn’t just a cut and copy of the men’s. “By making the women’s competition stand alone it helped the tournament forge its own identity. We worked hard to create a new brand identity and fan experience for the Women’s Six Nations that felt different from the men’s.” The hard work is clearly paying off. Last year the tournament saw a 70% increase in match attendance and 135% increase in TV ratings.
Sarah’s love of sport started at a young age. “I was being dragged around football pitches with my brother’s team, so I started forcing my way into that and I loved it. Sadly, there wasn’t much in the way of opportunity for girls at school or at local rugby clubs when I was growing up. I’m delighted this is finally starting to change for my daughters, though there is still a way to go.” Despite the lack of playing opportunities Sarah followed her love for sport into content production, chasing every opportunity to work on rugby. “I loved watching rugby so blagging press accreditation and sitting alongside ‘proper journalists’ for The Six Nations and Autumn Internationals was always a priority task.”
Her appreciation of creating great fan content has come full circle. TiKTok was announced as the first title sponsor of the Women’s Six Nations in 2022, with creators on the platform being credited for taking women’s rugby to new audiences. “I’m really enjoying being able to create opportunities and access for some of the unbelievable content creators out there who are doing so much to share their passion for the game and help us grow it,” comments Sarah.
So, what’s next for the Women’s Six Nations?
“We will continue to grow our audiences through impactful storytelling and connecting fans to our game changing heroes. We want to lean more heavily into the rising tide of women’s sport with more focus on cross-over sport opportunities – lifting and supporting each other.”
The Voice Of Women’s Rugby
Support is a theme that comes through strongly when speaking to journalist and broadcaster Claire Thomas. From presenting Premier 15 games to writing for Rugby Pass and being the face of ITV’s rugby social channels on matchday, Claire is one of the driving forces behind the growing media coverage of the game.
Claire works in both men’s and women’s rugby, but she believes there’s something about the women’s sport space that seems particularly supportive and collaborative. “Working alongside women allows you to be better at your job as they just intuitively get how you might be feeling about things. There are nuances to being a woman in broadcasting and it’s important to have someone in the room you can look across at and even if you don’t know them, you know they are feeling the same,” comments Claire.
Sport is naturally a competitive environment, but Claire notes this manifests itself positively in women’s sport. “The space is competitive because everyone wants to do well and everyone is driven and motivated, but there is a real sense there are plenty of chairs we can pull up to the table and we can all succeed together. Right now, we are getting scraps and that is changing, but we need to do everything we can to help each other up the ladder.” Claire has always been a huge sports fan and growing up dreamed of becoming a journalist. But it wasn’t until she addressed a health issue at university that she thought about combining her two passions.
“I lost my voice during freshers’ week, like everyone does at university, but mine never came back. I went from having this really clear voice to having this husky voice. I went to see an ear, nose and throat specialist and they said you have damaged your vocal cords and you’ll always have a husky voice, then she made a completely offhand comment and said: ‘You’ll have a great voice for radio.’ So, I went back to university and started student radio, including the sports show and one thing led to another.”
Claire cites several players who have inspired her over the years, but one name which she frequently mentions is England legend Maggie Alphonsi. Having initially met Maggie at an awards event at school, she now works with her for ITV. “When I met her at my school event I was blown away by her physical state, she was so strong and had such a presence, I hadn’t seen a woman like that in the flesh before and that made a big impact on me as a teenager.”
Creating Visibility For The Game
Lack of visibility for the England Women’s team is why O2, a long-term sponsor of England Rugby, committed to parity of spend across the men’s and women’s teams when it renewed its partnership in 2021. O2 is now on a mission to help close rugby’s gender awareness gap in the run up to a home Rugby World Cup in 2025.
Marie Houlgate, who is the Head of Sport Partnerships and Sponsorship at O2, hopes their commitment to invest equally in the women’s and men’s teams will set a new standard for future sport partnerships. “Over the last two years we’ve definitely seen a more defined upward trajectory than I anticipated across awareness, visibility and sponsors investing in the game,” says Marie.
This ambition is currently on the way to being realised. Ahead of the Rugby World Cup in the Autumn, O2 and the RFU created the first women’s rugby team documentary ‘Wear the Rose. An England Rugby Dream’, a two-part documentary series that took fans behind the scenes in camp as the Red Roses prepared for the World Cup. “We knew once people could see the passion and personalities behind this team, they would want to watch them play,” says Marie. The documentary was snapped up by ITV and screened on ITV1 and is still available on demand on ITVx. “What’s really positive is that research from the Women’s Sport Trust found that fans who watched the documentary then went on to watch more minutes of the games, demonstrating that if you create awareness, you’ll build the fan base.”
Marie has been a lifelong fan of the men’s game and regularly watched Harlequins play at the Stoop with her dad. Having worked in men’s rugby for the majority of her career she’s excited about what the future holds for the women’s game. “The Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2022 was the first time I saw a big shift in attitudes towards the game outside my rugby bubble. It was the first time I’ve heard friends and family talk about it without it coming from me, with me preaching about it,” says Houlgate.
This week O2 announced a ground-breaking partnership with the Women’s Sport Trust and the RFU to use data and insight to understand the emerging women’s rugby audience as part of O2’s mission to close rugby’s gender awareness gap. “We want to be held accountable and be challenged on the impact we’re making in the space. This research may not always tell us what we want to hear, but to grow the game it’s important we understand the full picture.”
So Where Can Women’s Rugby Go Next?
This year’s TikTok Women’s Six Nations provides another pivotal moment when the Red Roses play their first standalone game against France at Twickenham, the home of English rugby. This would be significant in itself, if it wasn’t for the fact that despite being a month away this fixture has already sold more than 40,000 tickets and is on track to beat the world record attendance for a women’s rugby international (42,579) which was set at the Rugby World Cup final in New Zealand.
In her emotional post-match interview after England were defeated in that game the England captain Sarah Hunter said of the team’s heroic performances “Hopefully back home we’ve inspired the next generation.” Based on the current ticket sales for Twickenham, there’s no doubt they have.
Want to get in on the rugby action?! Join Glorious TOMORROW at Valderrama’s in Islington, where along with the match screening of England vs Scotland, there will be a Q&A with Red Roses players, ticket giveaways and guest DJs that will ensure the party continues long after the final whistle!