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Opinion: Women's rugby deserves better than lazy and damaging stereotypes

Niamh Horan’s feature in The Sunday Independent about training with a women’s rugby team was a wasted opportunity, writes Sindo columnist Katy Harrington.

Fiona Coghlan, Marie Louise Reilly, Jackie Shiels, Hannah Casey and Lynne Cantwell relax in Paris today ahead of the World Cup semi-final.
Fiona Coghlan, Marie Louise Reilly, Jackie Shiels, Hannah Casey and Lynne Cantwell relax in Paris today ahead of the World Cup semi-final.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THIS MORNING A friend shared a link on Facebook to an article by Niamh Horan about her experience meeting and joining The Railway Union women’s rugby team for a practice. I read it and got mad.

Then I read it again and felt sad for lots of reasons, a few of which I’ve tried to express here.

First up, the writer doesn’t seem to know much about rugby, which is fine, because it’s a first-person, get stuck in kinda feature… but it quickly slides in to lazy, inaccurate and damaging stereotypes about women and women who play sport at all levels.

There is a lot of sexual innuendo in the beginning of the piece, which is all a bit of a giggle really with the scrum and all that business. I don’t get upset about a few harmless crotch jokes, but then tone changes dramatically.

“Let me shatter your misconceptions about women in the sport. These are not butch, masculine, beer-swilling, men-hating women. They are fit, toned, effortlessly pretty players who love nothing more than getting dolled up for the evening”, Horan writes.

Whew, I’m so relieved they are pretty and don’t drink beer, at least one of those things must make a big difference when our rugby players are sprinting towards the tryline with 15 Kazakhstani opponents trying to stop them.

Personally, I don’t have any “misconceptions” for Horan to shatter about women in rugby, I don’t even have a conception to be truthful, because until this incredible national team win, I hadn’t heard much about the Irish women’s squad…and I love watching rugby (even though my friends are ashamed to watch the Six Nations in the pub with me because I tend to freak out and scream – a lot).

It’s brilliant that women’s team are getting deserved column inches, so why waste the opportunity talking about manicures, fake tan and what they wear off the pitch (the same type of clothes all other women wear surely?)

There’s so much in that “butch, masculine, beer-swilling, men-hating” sentence that bothers me. That women who play sport or are strong are somehow less womanly is absurd. I really thought that we were done with all that nonsense of calling girls who have short hair butch and boys who study ballet sissies, or am I the only one who saw Billy Elliott?

Provocation

Horan assumes that we, the public, walk around believing female rugby players are manly and butch, but hate men at the same time. Where did this ridiculous and unfounded notion come from? And why on earth would they hate men? Does physical prowess and sporting ability change women genetically, making them hate their brothers, sons, dads and boyfriends?

Oh hang on, they probably don’t have any…sure they must all be lesbians! One commenter on Facebook, Gearoid McCarthy, made the point that the piece was “looking for a rise” and he may be correct, but I didn’t think newspapers or journalists wrote things purely for provocation, and even if they did, why pick on a women’s sports team having their first public moment in the sun? Surely there are more bad guys out there who we’d love to see sent up, exposed or derided by an experienced journalist like Horan.

There are some really good bits in the feature. The description of the first encounter with the national men’s team and how they formed a circle around the women’s team in a show of consolidation is incredible. Imagining that moment sent a shiver down my spine, the same one I felt watching the men’s team sing our national anthem in Croke Park in 2007.

Remember when John Hayes cried? Yeah, ‘The Bull’ bawled his eyes out, but no one called him a pansy or thought he was less of a man for it did they?

What annoys me most about the article is that an opportunity for a great story was wasted.

I am curious about this team and (off the top of my head) I have lots of questions. Are any of their players on the national squad? Who are the key players? Where are they from? Do they get paid playing for their country and clubs? How much? (I’m not being rude, journalists are supposed to be nosey). What about sponsorship? Where did they start playing? (I went to a mixed school and no one ever threw me a rugby ball). Do they ever play mixed rugby? Should we be teaching rugby more in school? Rugby has a bit of reputation for being elitist, is that the case in the women’s game too?

Who are our biggest rivals as a nation? How often to they train and where? I want gore; I want injury stories. Who gives their Paul O’Connell-style half time put-the-fear-of-God-in-them, go bananas team talks? When do we get to see them play next? I’m not being glib here, but I actually wouldn’t mind knowing what they eat for breakfast either.

Finally, I really take issue with the article’s closing remark asking if the players get involved in threesomes. Had Horan been given the privilege of hanging out with a men’s club would she have asked Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney or Jamie Heaslip the same question? I doubt it. They would have been afforded more respect than that.

Maybe this is a disappointing piece of writing too, because I have more questions than answers. All I know is we must do better because on this occasion, someone dropped the ball.

Katy Harrington is a freelance journalist who has a weekly column in The Sunday Independent. 

In pictures: Irish women in relaxed mood as they enjoy down day in Paris

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Katy Harrington

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