The best thing to happen in Irish sport in 2017 is the staging of the Women’s Rugby World Cup, writes Paul Rouse.

In the sporting life of this country, it is a landmark moment in the ongoing journey towards equality.

By the way of these things, of course, the staging of this World Cup will be dwarfed by the potential announcement of the awarding of the men’s Rugby World Cup to Ireland next November.

It is an elegant statement of the enduring disability that women’s sport labours under that the actual playing of a World Cup should be of such lesser note to the mere announcement of a decision to stage an event some six years into the future.

There are historical reasons for this discrimination against women. Almost every national and international organisation, which now governs sport, was founded in the years between 1850 and 1900. These institutions reflected the gender prejudices of the times in which they were formed. This was — emphatically — a man’s world and sport inevitably reflected this simple fact.

But the newly formed sporting organisations such as the Football Association (1863) and the Rugby Football Union (1871) were not just set up for men, but for a very definite type of man. The sporting male was to be strong, vigorous, and tough. To be good at sport was to be naturally male. At least that it is how the rhetoric of the time presented it. This was a rhetoric that was pulled from the elite public schools of England (all, essentially, the preserve of boys of a certain class) and ultimately applied to the developing world of sport.

The rules made by these organisations were passed around the British Empire and the story that attended this passage claimed that it was in such that boys were made into men. Indeed, sport was perceived as the perfect academy to learn the skills that made life possible.

There was a place for women in this world — but that place was not on the playing field. Women were expected to watch and admire, present the garlands afterwards, swoon, and help with the catering.

There was a certain pride expressed in this discrimination. The Yorkshire Rugby Union was told by one of its officers in 1889: ‘We have no dealings with women here.’ And this point was repeatedly reinforced. For example, later in 1932 a one-time president of the Rugby Football Union said: ‘Ours is a game not founded for women.’ And, among many women, too, there was a lack of conviction regarding their suitability for athletic endeavour.

Wealthy women, who might have been expected to lead a sporting movement for women, held other priorities. It was considered vulgar in the late 19th century to have a robust fitness. This very abstinence from activity made women inevitably more prone to illness. And the less women did, the less they appeared able to do.

Fighting against prejudice is made all the more difficult when it is wrapped in some pseudo-intellectual justification. And so it was that science fed the belief that men and women were complementary opposites. Basically, it was still held by many that excessive sporting activity could diminish a woman’s capacity to have children. Women were considered only to have a fixed amount of energy and wasting it on sporting activity deflected them from fulfilling the roles of wife and mother.

Sporting discrimination against women was not something that was the preserve of the United Kingdom. The visionaries of continental European sport believed that women had no place in their world of sport. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, wrote in the 1890s that women’s sport was “against the laws of nature”, and that 2the eternal role of woman in this world was to be a companion of the male and mother of the family, and she should be educated towards those functions”.

In time — but only slowly — the boundaries began to shift. This shift reflected the changing place of women in society. Independent women sought their own place in the world, working in the civil service, graduating from universities, living on their own.

Sport played a significant part in shifting the perceptions of what a woman was capable of doing. That women began to redefine sport for themselves is a tribute to the pioneering few who defied the conventions of their age. They established their own organisations for golf and camogie, for example, and women’s tennis became hugely popular.

But there was no playing place for women in rugby or soccer or in the GAA. Basically, across the modern sporting world there were games considered to be suitable for women and games that were equally considered unsuitable.

Rugby emphatically fitted into the second category.

In the late 19th century, the response of sporting women was to create an alternative sporting culture around lacrosse and netball. In this culture, women sought competitive sport by working around the prejudices of their age and constructing their own sporting world.

This changed only exceptionally slowly in the 20th century and every advance was tempered by a residual tendency to patronise and to parody the sporting female. Indeed, women’s sport has routinely been belittled, trivialised, or simply ignored. There is no denying this essential truth.

Over time, the overt discrimination of Victorian times has largely disappeared, but its remnants have determined that sportswomen have remained very much the poor relation to men.

Here’s a simple comparison: the first international rugby match involving Irish men was played in 1875, while the first international rugby match involving Irish women was played in 1993. That sentence, in the baldness of its detail, reveals an ocean of chauvinism, ignorance, neglect and denial.

It was Scotland who provided the first opposition in 1993, and the match was played in Edinburgh on St Valentine’s Day — it ended in a 10-0 loss.

More importantly, that year also saw the establishment of the Irish Women’s Rugby Football Union. That union was borne of an alliance between 10 teams of women who had begun to play rugby from the early 1980s.

During that decade, women’s rugby matches were played on an ad-hoc basis by a growing number of women who — by the end of the 1980s — numbered some 200.

This led, in turn, to the establishment of the All-Ireland Rugby League in November 1992, with teams drawn from as far apart as Belfast, Dublin, and Limerick. The final of that first league was played at Donnybrook and drew some 1,500 to see Blackrock defeat UCD. Central to the early success of the league was the commitment of their sponsors Standard Life Assurance Company who brought invaluable profile to the endeavour.

It is a simple fact that women’s rugby was not supported properly by the existing men’s teams. It is true that Blackrock Rugby Club brought the women’s team into their structure, provided training facilities and expertise, and gave their grounds for matches. But most clubs simply ignored what was happening. As Mary O’Beirne, the president of the new Irish Women’s Rugby Football Union pointed out at the time, this was extremely shortsighted: “If more Irish rugby clubs were to become involved with women’s rugby, I feel it would be to the clubs’ advantage and widen the scope of the game.”

There are plenty of rugby clubs in Ireland who have yet to properly embrace that lesson. The same applies to rugby clubs around the world. In the years that followed those pioneering efforts in Ireland, there were many setbacks. The rise of Irish women’s rugby has been a heroic struggle — put simply, there was no meteoric rise to success. Ireland lost more matches than it won on the international stage and, more importantly, Ireland’s rugby men were extremely slow to facilitate women’s interest and entitlement to play.

Something of a Golden Age dawned when an outstanding group of players profited from the general rise in interest and success in Irish rugby to claim a Grand Slam in the 6 Nations in 2013. This was followed in 2014 with a semi-final place in the World Cup, during which they beat New Zealand, and then the Six Nations Championship was won again in 2015. The staging of the World Cup this month emphasises just how far women have travelled on this particular sporting journey.

There is no point in pretending that it marks full equality — what it does signify, however, is the sort of momentum that means the future of the game in Ireland opens out with genuine grounds for optimism.


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