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'Women's rugby is a place where you can be anything you want to be'

Ireland flanker Anna Caplice believes people are finally starting to see the women’s game for what it is.

Ireland's Anna Caplice has joined forced with Tackle Your Feelings to encourage people to #BeKind online during the final weekend of this year’s Guinness Six Nations.
Ireland's Anna Caplice has joined forced with Tackle Your Feelings to encourage people to #BeKind online during the final weekend of this year’s Guinness Six Nations.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Updated Mar 18th 2021, 8:32 AM

BACK IN JANUARY, Anna Caplice posted a screenshot of a comment section from a news story about the 2021 Women’s Six Nations being postponed. The comments highlighted all carried the same message – ‘Who cares?’

Caplice cared. As did all of her teammates and coaches. As did their friends and families. As did all of the other teams affected. As did the thousands around the world who had been looking forward to watching the tournament and supporting their countries.

She posted the screenshot along with an image of herself lining out for Ireland and some words outlining the sacrifices required to play the game at the highest level, a heartfelt message which received a hugely positive response.

Problem is, nobody has the energy to call out every ignorant comment they see online, so much of the everyday sexism directed at women’s rugby and those who play it tends to be met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders or roll of the eyes.

The players themselves have become used to it, but are trying to encourage change.

Caplice cites an example she has previously detailed on the podcast she co-hosts, The Gain Line. She was scrolling through her Twitter feed one day last month when a clip popped up. The video was of the Premier 15s try of the week, and showed Bristol Bears prop Simi Pam breaking from inside her own half and burning a handful of defenders to dot down.

It was an impressive score, but Caplice automatically feared the worst as she headed for the comments. 

“A lot of the criticism for the women’s game is coming at the game because it’s played by women,” Caplice explains.

“When try of the week is released at the end of a round of games, not every time, but often there are comments underneath saying ‘Oh, all I can see is just bad defence,’ or ‘she had no interest in tackling her.’”

Caplice was pleasantly surprised to see that on this occasion the reaction was largely positive, but it struck her that experience had wired her to automatically expect negative commentary. 

“It’s happening less and less, and I think it’s because we are becoming aware of the online harassment and negativity, that actually people are starting to see the women’s game for what it is, and just starting to take part in the positive comments and the positive discussion around it.

“I was really happy to see that everyone wasn’t commenting on the fact that the fullback or whoever missed a tackle, they were giving her the full credit for what she achieved and how she scored the try.”

The negativity that can be thrown at the sport is in stark contrast to the positivity generated within in. 

In Caplice’s experience, women’s rugby is a place where all are welcomed and fully encouraged to be themselves, something which cannot be said for far too many sporting organisations. 

I think women’s rugby is a very liberal place, a wonderful dressing room to be in, and I’ve found between playing in the UK and Ireland that you can kind of be whoever you want to be and there is a place for you in a rugby team.

“I think that any team sport, you accept people for who they are because that’s how your team goes forward.

“Having different characters creates a character that is then unique to that team. I think that women’s rugby does a really good job in that. Not flawless, and not without areas that need to improve, like anything.

“But if you look at the men’s game and how they celebrate LGBTQ and wear the rainbow laces and make a stand for racism in rugby, things like that, they are very welcome motions and motives in women’s rugby as well, even though the men get a lot of the platform to express that on telly and all the rest. But in women’s rugby it’s almost like, ‘Yeah, obviously, we support this.’ 

“I think women’s rugby, very luckily, is one of the places in the world where you can be anything you want to be.”

Caplice admits her own experience of that has changed over the years. Having spent the early part of career in Ireland, her eyes were opened further when she made the short move across the Irish Sea to play in England.

“I started playing at 17 and had the best craic ever with the girls that I played with at underage level down in Mallow, then I went to play in UL Bohs and met and played alongside some girls who were gay, identified as gay and were very open about that, and it was my first time meeting someone who was that open about it in Ireland. 

anna-caplice Anna Caplice during an Ireland squad training session last month. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“So I already thought it was quite a liberal place to be, playing with UL Bohs and playing in Ireland. But then going to the UK, it was 10 times that. If you use that word liberal, it was just, wow… In the UK, it’s a bigger population and different cultural experience where religion isn’t as much to the forefront in society I suppose. So actually I was shocked when I went over first, (some) people didn’t care or even know what sexuality they were, they didn’t use that kind of label for themselves.

“Especially back then, and now having returned to Ireland I think it’s moved on even since I left a few years ago, which reinforces my point about being whoever you want to be in rugby.”

This conversation with Caplice took place via Zoom earlier this week to promote the latest release by the Tackle Your Feelings campaign. Thankfully, there was also some very encouraging news to discuss on the rugby front.

Shortly before we logged onto the call, World Rugby announced a new annual global women’s rugby competition called WXV, to launch in 2023.

The tournament will comprise of three tiers, with the top three teams from the Six Nations entering WXV 1 to play the top three teams from a cross-regional tournament featuring Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the USA.

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“It’s definitely exciting because even in a World Cup you might not get the chance to play a team like New Zealand,” Caplice says.

To just play different teams a bit more… like, we play the same Six Nations teams every year, sometimes without a summer tour, sometimes without autumn internationals, and you know, I’m really tired of playing Wales! We play them so often! They were our November international (in 2019), then we’re playing them in the Six Nations and playing them in a friendly…

“So yeah, I would definitely love to see a few more teams thrown in there just to open it up and see how different teams play and see what that brings out in us.”

Of more immediate concern is next month’s rescheduled, reworked Six Nations.

A condensed championship will see Ireland play Wales and France in Pool B, before playing the opposing ranked team from Pool A.

“A lot of people have lost a lot of things that are a lot more valuable than rugby to them,” Caplice continues. “So we’ll take it in whatever format. We just want to play and prove that the work that we’ve been putting in will be worthwhile, prove it to ourselves and just get game-time.

“Our training has been so good, and has been at such a high level, because it feels like there is a jersey just in front of your face, but then selections have been pushed off and a lot of things have been postponed. So we’ve been almost, almost getting to peak every time when something has changed.

“So now to have actual fixtures in the diary, in whatever format, we’ll take it and we won’t be approaching that different to any other year. We’ll actually (be going in) with a bit more hunger than usual because we just want to get back out there, wear the jersey and get women’s sport and women’s rugby back on the screens.”

For more information on Tackle Your Feelings follow the Instagram account @tyf or visit the website www.tackleyourfeelings.com.

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