Years of growth in women’s rugby is at risk of being reversed in the wake of cuts at community level, figures from the female grass-roots game have warned.
The Rugby Football Union intends to make 104 redundancies across community rugby as it continues to deal with the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, with all rugby development officer (RDO) and community rugby coach (CRC) positions to go.
“Without our CRCs and RDOs, we’re absolutely stuffed,” says Alex Gradwell-Spencer, who set up her own women's team, aged 37, at Glossop RUFC, where her two boys played.
Gradwell-Spencer was inspired by the 'Inner Warrior' programme, which was launched by the RFU in 2017 in a bid to introduce 100,000 women and girls to rugby by 2021.
The scheme, which the RFU says will continue, is where CRCs and RDOs have had a significant impact: 18,000 women have attended over 500 warrior camps across England over the past two years.
“I’d say probably 90 per cent of the growth is down to what the RFU have done to help support me in growing our women’s team,” adds Gradwell-Spencer.
“The RFU has been so supportive in terms of putting on women’s development days to help grow the game. The next phase was to start creating that local pathway - because there isn’t one here for girls at the moment - but I need support to do that.”
There is a growing frustration across the women’s community game given how provisional fixtures and start dates for men’s community rugby were released nearly three weeks ago, but none have been announced for female equivalent levels.
“I feel like we will go backwards in terms of growing the game and keeping the momentum rolling forward,” adds Gradwell-Spencer. “The men’s team at Glossop have had their provisional fixtures for ages. Why haven’t the women also got theirs? We’re very much an afterthought.”
The RFU announced on Thursday that the adult league season would not commence in September and told Telegraph Sport it would provide an update on women's fixtures “in due course”.
Jess Bunyard, a rugby development officer at Huddersfield RUFC, worries women of Gradwell-Spencer’s age could be left behind as community roles shrink.
“We run the risk of ignoring where women’s rugby can have its most impact in women’s lives,” insists Bunyard. “The sporty ones will come to the clubs anyway, because they’ll be mad keen to try rugby, but the greatest impact will be with the mothers who think they’re unfit, they don’t have the skillset and lack the confidence.
“I’ve seen them come into my club and I’ve seen their confidence bloom, they’re doing things they were never capable of doing and they’ve suddenly gained a whole other family to lean on.”
Women and girls rugby in England had been going from strength to strength across all levels as a result of the progress being made in line with the RFU’s four year women and girls’ action plan, which launched in September 2017.
Before lockdown, the initiative was on target to engage 100,000 women and girls into the sport by 2021 and make 25,000 of those regular club players. Latest figures from the RFU show there are around 37,000 women and girls who are registered to play club rugby in England, but Bunyard fears her area will be hit disproportionately by the cull in community roles.
“Yorkshire is probably going to feel it more acutely than other constituent bodies,” she says. “Clubs will probably do okay where there is a men’s or women’s Premiership or Championship rugby club in their area, because they’ll have another development team to fall back on. Sadly in Yorkshire, we don’t have one of those. We’re sort of left a bit stranded.”
My thoughts and thanks are with those who inspired me on my coaching journey at the RFU. Those who helped grow the game left the smiles on the faces of so many who fall in love with the beautiful game. Go well on your next step think of the wonderful legacy you have left behind pic.twitter.com/OHL6x3JHxP— richard cheetham MBE (@twowheelprof) August 3, 2020
Richard Cheetham is a lecturer at the University of Winchester who has a part-time role as an RFU coach educator. Having mentored former England players on level-four coaching courses, including the 2014 World Cup winner Danielle Waterman, he has seen an increase in women taking up coaching roles.
“There’s this wonderful cycle now where women finish playing and now want to coach,” he says. “That’s the position we want to be in. We don’t want the women’s game to be a poor relation to the men’s game.”