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Changing rugby down under

Who are the most important women in Australian rugby? They may just be three women you have never heard of. 

Attitudes to women in Australian rugby are changing faster than probably any country in the world. In a year when World Rugby found finding hosts for the Women’s World Series tough, one Union stepped forward volunteering to not only host a round but give the women parity with the men. The timing turned out to be wrong in 2016, with Sydney Sevens too close to Sao Paulo, but hopefully in 2017 the ARU’s ambition will become reality.

Australia loves winners, and it might initially be assumed that the ARU’s new attitude towards women’s rugby might be just because they have a team that is winning, but in truth – while that undoubtedly helps – there is more to what is going on in Australian rugby than opportunism. Elisha Pearce from Australian website The Roar recently met a trio of Australian women who are doing as much off the field as Caslick, Tonegato and Parry are on it

“Many might not know the ARU has three women on the board,” says Pearce, introducing Pip Marlow (managing director of Microsoft Australia), Ann Sherry (CEO of Carnival Australia) and Elizabeth Broderick (former sex discrimination commissioner and current lawyer). “Having three strong and successful women, with records of promoting inclusion and diversity, on the board coincided with the development of a five-year strategic plan that focuses the game on female participation and bringing the game into the 21st century.”

Pearce spoke to Broderick and Sherry about how they are striving to make rugby a more diverse and accessible sport, and what they bring to the board.

Broderick brings her credentials for inclusion and track record as sex discrimination commissioner for eight years to the table. She thinks it ties strongly into the ARU’s current direction.

“Our strategy was about rugby as a game for all,” Broderick said. “If you look at current data [we need to ask] how do we make rugby, which has predominantly been very male-dominated, actively include women? That’s the strong area of expertise I have.”

Sherry identified three levels of insight, combining business acumen and diversity.

“I’ve run businesses and at the end of the day, sport is a big business now. And secondly, I’ve run consumer-facing businesses and sport is now all about customers.

“The third thing is I bring a passion for broadening participation in sport. Sport is a great vehicle to broaden diversity and bring opportunity to people in relatively marginalised communities.”

Peace says that “early hints of the focus are visible in the high profile the women’s sevens team are getting in the media and on social media. But there is still a long way to go in Australia. In Australia, the target is to increase women’s participation to 15 per cent of the playing group. In 2015, VIVA7s and Game On were launched and females make up 47 per cent of the uptake so far – some 14,955 players.

“We really need to invest in the women’s game,” Broderick said.“That isn’t about stripping out any sponsorship from the men’s game but finding new investment into the women’s game and to ensure the growth of the game.”

The ARU’s aim for 2020 is to build a national seven’s rugby series for women. Sherry can see a future where a women’s sevens competition thrives on television.

“It needs to be visible, watchable and it is exciting to watch,” she said. “I think some of the broadcasters are lagging in their understanding of how quickly the market is changing.”

Another improvement to sevens Sherry mentioned was building on the raging success of the Sydney Sevens. She emphasised that weekend was a blueprint for building carnival experiences that engage with young people but she said the ARU was very keen to make sure women are playing alongside the men next year.

“That gives more games, more reasons for more people to come. Particularly post-Olympics there will be a heightened awareness of sevens,” Sherry said.

While Broderick admits some people in rugby, a sport traditionally dominated by men on and off the field, may take a while to get used to the new normal, she says purposely involving women more isn’t “being politically correct or social engineering”.

“When you bring women into the game it creates a whole different experience, which is additional not replacing any other experience,” she said.

“It will bring a new fan-base, a greater level of fan engagement. And not only that, why shouldn’t women who love rugby and want to play be included like men? I come from a strong position that if we are about ensuring both men and women can thrive in all areas of Australian life, including sport, rugby is a great vehicle to do that.”

The recent success of the women’s team is providing another thing rugby often lacks – high-profile athletes. The likes of Ellia Green, Charlotte Caslick, Mahalia Murphy and Taleena Simon are giving rugby a new profile in the media and online and Sherry couldn’t be happier.

“They are really good women, the fact they are playing rugby is an added bonus and the fact they are international athletes as well is a double bonus,” she said.

“But they are the type of women you’d want to give a profile to anyway. They are fantastic women, completely committed and they look like Australia of the 21st century.”

Both board members have strong records of innovation, business and public service, and are excited about molding rugby into a game suited to the 21st-century family and consumer.

“The world is changing, so why wouldn’t rugby change?” Broderick asked, adding that sevens is likely to shake up the game like T20 did to cricket

This is a notable statement. ‘T20’ is a shortened and simplified form of traditional test cricket, in a similar way that sevens is a shorter, simpler form of rugby compared to traditional fifteens. And this is significant because after 10 years or so of T20, international women’s test cricket has almost ceased to exist. If rugby follows the example of cricket is the future of women’s test XVs going to be the same as women’s test cricket?

“Sevens is a great example of innovation,” continues Broderick, apparently unconcerned about these changes. “We have always done things one particular way and that has worked, but we need to look at new ways to grow the game.”

Broderick wants to innovate to bring diversity to new areas of sport that haven’t previously been considered, beyond grassroots participation.

“We need to expand our diversity of players and we need to have the idea of a female coach in high-performance units, that is one we can have a look at. I’m convening the Male Champions of Change in elite sports. I’m seeing all the codes stepping up in this and certainly rugby is there front and centre. We can share best practice and that is really exciting.”

Sherry is very aware that rugby needs to make strides online to compete in a difficult marketplace.

“We are obviously doing a lot of work on our digital platform for a start. We are at the tweeting and being present in the digital platforms, that’s part of it,” she said.

She also but also swings back to the potential goldmine that is the shorter form of the game.

“That sort of carnival weekend is another way of engaging with young people,” Sherry said about the Sydney Sevens. “You don’t just go, sit and leave. You come, there’s a lot going on, it’s fun and high energy as well. Often at sporting games unless your team is winning it can be low energy. But this is very different and high impact. Looking out onto the crowd it was very young. That is very different for rugby, but for other sports as well.”

“So, what can we learn from the insights of two ARU board members?” asks Pearce.

“The focus on women’s rugby in the strategic plan, plainly evident on first reading and by absorbing the trimming and packaging, wasn’t a token gesture.

“Secondly, get used to sevens," concludes Pearce. "The board sees the future of the game including more space for sevens rugby. It could be used to develop a T20-style tournament for broadcast television, something rugby desperately needs. And it puts rugby in the Olympic Games, so it would be shortsighted not to ride the wave.

“Overall, the ARU is slowly becoming a less stodgy institution. While there is a long way to go, rugby might yet find a way to thrive in a more inclusive and diverse world.”

“The world is changing, so why wouldn’t rugby change?” Broderick asked, adding that sevens is likely to shake up the game like T20 did to cricket

Elisha Pearce, The Roar