Confessions of a Women’s Rugby Novice…

Cambridge University RFC

First Timer:

Last December I had the privilege to take a group of U16 players to Twickenham to the Varsity matches between Oxford and Cambridge. For some it was their first time at the home of English rugby and for almost all of them, it was the first time they would see Women’s rugby live. In fact, it was my first time too.

During a presentation during the RFU Level 3 weekend at Bristol last July, England’s Senior Analyst, Kate Burke, introduced us to some of the practices around game footage and how best to analyse performance. Her insights were fascinating to those hoping to glean some ideas from the professional game. Then we were introduced to our task:

  • Watch a game between Harlequins and Saracens in real time with no stoppages or replays;
  • Make notes of how you would brief your allocated team at half-time;
  • Plan a two-week block of training for your team to take on one of Sarries or Quins at the end of that period.

Once the game came up on screen, the predominantly male environment suddenly noticed how this wasn’t Sarries and Quins as we may have expected it. Instead we watched the 2018 final of the Tyrells Premier 15s, the domestic competition for women’s rugby in England. It was my first time to watch a club game of women’s rugby. What a game it was…

Below: Best Tries from the Tyrells Premier 15s:

Plentiful Quality:

When I set about – earlier this season- promoting positive gender dynamics in sport to the boys I coach, I had a limited understanding in regards to the women’s game. My ‘bibliography’ would be something like…watching Ireland win the Grand Slam in 2013 while Fiona Coughlan captained the side. The following year, that Irish team would do something that the men’s side had never done (until Solider Field in Chicago) by beating New Zealand to top their pool in the Women’s Rugby World Cup in France. The summer of 2016 allowed me to witness the genius that is Charlotte Caslick and Portia Woodman as 7s announced itself on the world stage at the Rio Olympics.

I would like to think I have a better idea of women’s rugby now but cannot help but think there is so much I could learn and garner from watching more women’s rugby and working alongside more female coaches. Before I set out on this project, I knew that I would need to find high quality female coaches. It did not take long. Over the course the same Level 3 weekend last summer, I met lots of women who are working in various areas of the game, with both men and women, girls and boys, who were exceptional coaches in their various fields. One such person was Dr Anna Stodter, who was kind enough to come pay us a visit last November. It was only afterwards she revealed that it was only the second time she had coached boys.

The ‘Other Place’:

Having seen how Anna had thrown herself into the challenge of a new environment, I tried to replicate it in my own way. Therefore last week I found myself helping out with the Women’s side at Cambridge University. Anna is part of the coaching setup who were victorious over ‘the other place’ at the Varsity match in December. I have mainly coached in schools and so have plenty of experience working with boys and then some club rugby working with men. This was a first for me and I absolutely loved it. The energy from the group; the supportive nature towards each other; the encouragement from the coaching staff and the insatiable desire to improve was really telling.

There were two groups in what was a wet and miserable evening: a ‘Development’ group who had taken up rugby in the past few weeks and an ‘Experienced’ group. Many of the group with more experience might only have been playing rugby for a few months but it was hard to tell when I watched them train. The development group were also really enthusiastic and showed some real promise throughout. One of the coaches remarked that women like the game of rugby for the same reasons that men do: its physical nature.

Business as usual for CURFC Women

One thing you often hear from coaches is to try and encourage players to be ‘coachable’. This team demonstrated such qualities in abundance as they were incredibly easy to work with because of their eagerness to learn. A fellow coach had warned me in advance: “They are going to ask you questions about the game you have never though of” – how prophetic this would prove to be…

It was a fantastic challenge to work with players who possess such a deep curiosity for the game and it helped me try to find better ways to express complex ideas in a straight-forward and succinct fashion. It also gave me much to reflect on:

Why might players who have played the game for longer, lack that same sense of curiosity? Do we coach this out of players who take up rugby at a very young age? How could I try to encourage such a driven and curious attitude in my own sessions in future, irrespective of age, ability or gender?

Humility & Vulnerability:

One player at the the end of the session came to ask me about rucking and tackling. She was lacking in confidence and rated her efforts in the session: “Around a 2 out of 10.” As I began trying to talk through good technique around the tackle, I suddenly realised where I had seen her before: she had been named Player of the Match in the Varsity. I had witnessed her immense tackles on the left wing: All. Day. Long. Here was someone who had excelled in one of the highest profile games in the rugby calendar, really showing her humility and allowing herself to be vulnerable. When I was later told that she had only been playing rugby a few months, having excelled in other sports, it put her performance at Twickenham into an even more impressive light.

Player of the Match: More than able to tackle…

What integral traits these are if we want to encourage real growth: humility and vulnerability. As coaches, we need to try and foster such moments for our players, to prompt them when necessary and to celebrate those who demonstrate such characteristics. Now of course, we want to balance such qualities and promote greater self-confidence, but how often have we had to rein this in and wanted to work with players who showed a little more humility?

Reflections…

So what have I learned my experiences of the women’s game? There is plenty of high quality rugby being played and coached a lot closer than you think. Keep an eye out on the 7s circuit where Olympic funding is really pushing the boundaries of what the women’s game can achieve. In the 15s game, England have recently given professional contracts to women in order to help develop the best talent in the game. The repercussions on growth in this area as a result will be significant for players and coaches alike. Another major takeaway for me was that there are plenty of role models in the women’s game that players and coaches can learn from.

Finally, in terms of my very brief coaching experience, the female players that I encountered are so willing to learn. I could see how worthwhile it would be to be involved in such an environment in future. If I have taken this much from only one session, imagine what else I could learn if I seek out similar environments…

If like me, you know little about women’s rugby, make sure you avoid the questions often put to female rugby players here.

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